In a time when many are often concerned with getting, it can be difficult to remember that this is the season of giving.
The service-oriented Christmas initiative, “Light the World,” sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this paper, has provided an opportunity this year for participants to condition themselves into making charitable habits a part of daily life.
In the days leading to Christmas, Light the World offers participants daily prompts for service ideas. This year, each prompt is tied to a biblical verse that relates to Christ-like selflessness. For instance, one day starts by quoting Christ's words, "I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink," followed by the challenge to give to those who are physically or spiritually thirsty.
Every year, new academic studies are published that affirm self-interested reasons to act altruistically. In 1999, researchers at Berkeley found that people who volunteer live longer; in 2008, a now famous Harvard Business School study found that those who give charitably are happier than those who spend only on themselves; sociologists Brent Simpson and Robb Willer have also found that those who give charitably enjoy stronger social ties and reciprocated service.
More recently, researchers at Brigham Young University studied a group of adolescents and noted that their self esteem improved when they lent a helping hand to a stranger.
While everyone can agree selflessness is an aspirational quality, not everyone undertakes the difficult work of cultivating that charitable character. Neuroscientists have studied the phenomenon of cognitive habits and have determined that repeated “goal-directed actions” are one way to direct one's instinctive responses for the better.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle described habits as an earned or “acquired disposition.” Neuroscientists Javier Bernacer and Jose Ignacio Murillo have applied this conception of habits to their research to reveal the link between goal-directed action and habituation. This perspective is often overlooked in modern neuroscience, as researchers tend to view habits as simply “instinctual actions.” For Bernacer and Murillo, however, habits are a means to cultivating a disposition that “involves an enhanced cognitive control of actions, [that] can be considered a ‘habit-as-learning.’”
The Light the World campaign makes evident that the daily pattern of charitable living involves a positive type of habit formation. With 25 days of prompts, participants are not only lighting the world around them, but they are also developing virtuous habits and an attitude of altruism.