Sheryl WuDunn: Giving is Good For You

There are countless opportunities in this world for one to give of him- or herself. And doing so, says WuDunn, helps more than just the receiver, even if it's not immediately apparent.

Sheryl WuDunn has the sort of résumé that would impress even Leonardo Da Vinci. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a successful businesswoman, and the co-author of three bestselling books. WuDunn's newest release, also her fourth collaboration with husband Nicholas D. Kristof, is called A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity. Its aim is to serve as a road map toward a future full of dedicated global citizens innovating more efficient methods for enacting positive change.


WuDunn recently visited Big Think to discuss some of the key themes of her book, the act of giving being one of the most important. There are countless ways and opportunities in this world for one to give of him- or herself. And doing so, says WuDunn, helps more than just the receiver, even if it's not immediately apparent:

"So we think that when we give we're losing something; we're giving some of our money, our time, our resources to someone else. It turns out when that neuroscientists who have studied altruism, they found some interesting results."

Research actually shows that the effect of altruism on a giver's brain is comparable to the stimulation one experiences when tasting sweets or falling in love. As it turns out, giving is good for you. WuDunn then rattles off multiple figures about how volunteering your time for multiple causes can decrease your mortality risk by as much as 44%. The big takeaway here is that if you're looking for a simple way to make yourself happy and healthy, you could do a lot worse than by simply giving your time, money, and energy to a good cause.

A Path Appears includes a list of organizations from which readers can choose to support, though WuDunn suggests personalizing your volunteership in order to highlight your particular skills. The only real warning she gives is that not every charity in the giving industry is ethical and/or efficient. You have to be wary of scams, you'll want to research just how much of a charity's contributed income ends up serving the cause.

Finally, WuDunn touches on one of the major societal goals moving forward identified in A Path Appears: fighting inequality. WuDunn and Kristof suggest an approach centered around education:

"And the most efficient way of doing that is by intervening early through early childhood education. We're talking about age one, two, three, even before the official public school system kicks in. Because your brain, the brain is forming much more rapidly during those early years in the first one thousand days. So if you can capture that window and milk it for what it is, you'll be far more effective in altering a life path, particularly if it's a child born to parents on welfare or impoverished parents."

Sheryl WuDunn, along with her husband Nicholas D. Kristof, is co-author of the new book A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity. WuDunn and Kristof were the first husband-wife duo to win a Pulitzer, for their coverage of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989.

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
Keep reading Show less

Divers discover world's largest underwater cave system filled with Mayan mysteries

Researchers in Mexico discover the longest underwater cave system in the world that's full of invaluable artifacts. 

Divers of the GAM project. Credit: Herbert Meyrl.
Technology & Innovation

Keep reading Show less

The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Bottles of antidepressant pills named (L-R) Wellbutrin, Paxil, Fluoxetine and Lexapro are shown March 23, 2004 photographed in Miami, Florida.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
  • Side effects from SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics last longer than benzodiazepines like Valium or Prozac.
  • The global antidepressant market is expected to reach $28.6 billion this year.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…