I’ve always found it curious that we consider eating nutritiously or going to the gym as “being good.” When we give in to counter-productive temptations, we are “bad.” And that negative thought about ourselves then cycles into another negative choice: “Since I’ve already broken my diet with these cookies, I might as well eat the whole bag.” Or, how about, “I missed the gym twice this week. I might as well throw in the towel.” Since when did our food and exercise habits make us virtuous–or naughty?
I’m as guilty as anyone. I actually prefer a nutritious diet, and find fatty or fried food distasteful. Now that I’ve decided to return to vegetarianism to protect my health, I am yet more nauseatingly pious.
But, new statistics show that a lifestyle of compassion towards others can actually help us make better choices in the kitchen–and more capable at the gym.
The research, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, shows a similar or even greater boost in physical strength following dastardly deeds. Researcher Kurt Gray, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard, explains that counter to the notion that only those blessed with heightened willpower or self-control are capable of making positive food choices, or consistently maintaining an exercise program.
“Gandhi or Mother Teresa may not have been born with extraordinary self-control, but perhaps came to possess it through trying to help others,” says Gray, who calls this effect “moral transformation” because it suggests that moral deeds have the power to transform people from average to exceptional.
“Perhaps the best way to resist the donuts at work is to donate your change in the morning to a worthy cause,” Gray says.
It may also suggest new treatments for anxiety or depression, he says: Helping others may be the best way of regaining control of your own life. (Amen to that! The best way out of a dark place is to help others who are in greater need than you. Seems counter-intuitive, but works every time.)
Gray’s findings are based on two studies. In the first, participants were given a dollar and told either to keep it or to donate it to charity; they were then asked to hold up a 5 lb. weight for as long as they could. Those who donated to charity could hold the weight up for almost 10 seconds longer, on average.
In a second study, participants held a weight while writing fictional stories of themselves either helping another, harming another, or doing something that had no impact on others. As before, those who thought about doing good were significantly stronger than those whose actions didn’t benefit other people.
But surprisingly, the would-be malefactors were even stronger than those who envisioned doing good deeds.
“Whether you’re saintly or nefarious, there seems to be power in moral events,” Gray says. “People often look at others who do great or evil deeds and think, ‘I could never do that’ or ‘I wouldn’t have the strength to do that.’ But in fact, this research suggests that physical strength may be an effect, not a cause, of moral acts.”