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An Abundance of Good: Cultivating Habits of Altruism and Compassion

Amrit Daryanani, PhD

Wellness at Wakefield is a new series focused on student psychological health and well-being.  New articles exploring the causes and conditions of human flourishing will be posted regularly.   

by Amrit Daryanani, PhD

On a cold Saturday morning in November, four Wakefield Seniors are hard at work gathering wood and running a wood splitter in a desolate, frost-bitten field.  They wedge a large round of wood under the cutting blade and expertly cut a uniform stack of logs. Later, they will load the wood into a truck and deliver it to a local family whose only heat comes from a wood-burning stove or fireplace.  The Seniors work quickly and efficiently; they know what they are doing as this is their second year volunteering with the local Wood Ministry. They also know how important their work is to the families they serve.  With winter coming, it is important to get deliveries made so neighbors are kept warm during the cold months that are to come.  One of the Ministry Elders, supervising from a distance, tells me that the average age of the volunteers used to be close to 70.  With a warm twinkle in his eyes he tells me that number has been reduced significantly.

A few miles away and a few days later, another group of students is at the local animal shelter, preparing to feed the horses, a small herd of goats, and one very obnoxious pig.  

Buckets are lined up for grain and a wheelbarrow is stacked high with hay.  The sound of nickering comes from the nearest paddock as the horses await the highly anticipated evening meal.  One of the students has a small pony on a lead rope, preparing to feed her separately.  The horses eat quickly and will steal the pony’s food if she isn’t taken from the field.  A visiting alumna is in the upper field spending time with a mare who is living with advanced cancer.  The mare has already lost one of her eyes to the disease and it is uncertain how long she has left to live.  Our small group is determined to fill her remaining days with love and kindness.      

The students and young adults in these groups have brought an abundance of good to the troubled days of this pandemic.  Guided by the spirit of altruistic compassion, they have developed the habit of giving of themselves to local causes dedicated to the relief of suffering and the promotion of individual and community well-being.  It is particularly powerful that they have remained committed to this work during these past weeks and months that have been so altered by COVID-19.

It is noteworthy that social science research has informed us that altruistic activity - acts of generosity directed towards others (particularly strangers) with no expectation of personal reward - offers some unique benefits to children, teenagers, and young adults.  The technical language of the social science lab tells us that protective factors are enhanced through altruistic activity; one’s sense of personal agency is increased as is one’s sense of personal well-being.  These factors become especially important when we consider that adolescence is a time of intense personal growth and identity formation.  When coupled with compassion - an emotional resonance with suffering paired with a desire to help alleviate the suffering and the causes and conditions of that suffering - the benefits become even greater.  We feel better, physically and psychologically, and we recover more quickly from illness.  Current research demonstrates that experiencing compassion may even enhance our life spans.  Programs that capitalize on neuroplasticity - the ability of the brain to change over time - have demonstrated that compassion training improves our ability to manage stress and negative emotions. 

A more soulful view offers a similar albeit more poetic perspective.  As we seek to address suffering and the causes of suffering we deepen our own humanity as we balance the forces of empathy and the need for thoughtful action.  With practice, we become more able to approach distress and difficult obstacles.  Our hearts remain strong and joyful, even when confronted with pain or sadness.  We are able to care deeply, with courage and with wisdom.  Through our service with others, we join into an intricate tapestry of care, weaving a bright cloak of goodness and grace that carries with it the best of each of us. And then we carry that cloak out into the world, spreading it as far as we can.  

Whether we resonate with science or with the soul, it is clear that cultivating habits of wellness is essential for the long-term well-being of our students.  As we continue to cope with the difficulties presented to us by the pandemic, it becomes increasingly important to provide tools that bolster a sense of self-agency and that help our children and adolescents navigate stress and negative emotions.  It is equally important to provide them with opportunities that provide a sense of meaning and purpose through long-term altruistic action.  Our children and adolescents are capable of bringing great good into the world. Sometimes the best gift we can give them is to provide a path forward.

This article is dedicated to the Wakefield  students and alumna who bring this altruistic activity to life: William Rich,  Walker Rich, Sophia Spytek, Harrison McElroy,  Lexi Andrezejewski, Kaitlyn Kroner, and Sarah Graham ’08.    A special thanks to our service partners, Grace Episcopal Church in The Plains, Virginia, and the Middleburg Humane Foundation.

Contact information:  Amrit Daryanani, PhD  adaryanani@wakefieldschool.org

Related links:  

https://centerhealthyminds.org/

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.00501001.x

https://neurosciencenews.com/neuroscience-brain-activity-compassion-training-153