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June 14, 2009

In recent years, the notion of sacrifice has taken a backseat to self-interest as an explanation for individual motivation to do good.  The idea that we expect to get something in return for our good deeds both appeals and repels at the same time.

Recently, neuroscientists using complex brain-imaging techniques and very creative experiments have not only rediscovered the power of doing good, but also provided important evidence of its biological roots.  Their work proves the old adage it is better to give than receive.

This work supports three important conclusions: First, that we humans are hardwired to feel empathy, display altruisim, and work collaboratively.  Second, that we can increase the sense of wellbeing we achieve from these acts by practicing them regularly,  And, third, that we can enhance our experience of them through the practice of meditation or focused reflection.

But does this work simply reinforce the notion that those who give of themselves expect something in return for their benevolence even if it is nothing more than a sense of grace or tranquility?  The mere fact we derive psychological or emotional benefit from our sacrifices makes such acts no less meaningful, particularly in a world in which we are surrounded by examples of people not only seeking but expecting material reward for their efforts.

Measuring happiness may not be the path to enlightenment, but seeking it in the simple pleasures of sacrifice cannot hurt.  In the end, doing good may be the surest path to doing well.

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