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How To Strengthen Your Moral Compass (And Why It's Good For Your Health)

By Dennis S. Charney, Steven M. Southwick, and Jonathan M. DePierro
Charney, Southwick, and DePierro are experts in psychology and neurobiology and coauthors of Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges.
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September 9, 2023
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Helping others helps you, too. Research has shown that many kinds of altruism are associated with resilience, positive mental health, and well-being. One study of 6,944 older adults (age 64 to an incredible 107!) found that those who volunteered more had a greater sense of control over their lives and felt more socially capable and less lonely (Lee 2021). Examples of altruism, from donating time or money to charity to risking one’s life to save others, are all around us. Even in the darkest times, we see humble people who are motivated by a desire to help. They ask themselves, If not me, then who?

As we have discussed earlier in the chapter, altruism provided a guiding light for many of the people we interviewed. What do we know about the neuroscience of altruism? Research studies frequently involve games in which a participant can choose to give money to another person or a charity, with no expectation of getting something in return. This work shows consistently greater activation of the brain’s reward center, the nucleus accumbens, when people act altruistically instead of “selfishly” (Cutler & Campbell-Meiklejohn 2019).

What about people who have engaged in significant acts of altruism in their own lives? Abigail Marsh and her colleagues studied “costly altruists” – individuals who had donated a kidney to a stranger. These researchers wanted to know if there was evidence in the brain that donors were more sensitive to the pain of others – in other words, did their extraordinary empathy drive them to donate? Participants completed an experiment where they first viewed a stranger in pain and then experienced pain themselves. Compared to non-donors, the donors showed greater overlap in activity in an area of the brain involved in pain processing (the insula) when viewing pain in others and receiving pain (Brethel-Haurwitz et al. 2018).

What do both imaging studies tell us about altruism? For most people, increased activation of the reward center would drive them to continue to act in the interest of others over their own – it feels good. For some, like kidney donors, others’ distress rather than reward may be driving them to act.

Training your moral compass

  • Look inward: We all have core values and beliefs. What are yours? Which is most important to you? Are you living by these principles and values? If not, where are you falling short? Do you have the couage to change?
  • Talk about it: Kidder recommends that you discuss these questions with highly principled people you admire. These discussions can help you recognize the numerous situations in life where your actions have moral implications, and honestly evaluate the risks in defending your values.
  • Put values into practice: Act according to your values. Remain vigilant because it is easy to make compromises and take shortcuts. By repeatedly doing what you know to be right, and by taking a stand, you strengthen your moral compass. As Aristotle wrote in Nicomachean Ethics: “We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts” (Aristotle 1926)
  • Check your assumptions about how different others’ values are from your own: Researchers at an organization called Beyond Conflict (2020) show that even now, the actual differences between political parties may be exaggerated. They surveyed Democrats and Republicans in the United States about their beliefs, how they viewed members of the opposing party, and how they thought members of that party felt about them. They found that Democrats and Republicans vastly overestimated how much the “other side” disliked them and how far apart they were on key social issues. With this in mind, we encourage you to have conversations with people whose views differ from your own. Be curious and do not immediately get defensive.

The takeaway

We also know that there is usually no need to search for situations that require moral courage: opportunities are all around us and we can start small. In her book, The Life Heroic (2019), Elizabeth Svoboda points out that small daily acts of kindness will build up a habit of helping others and prepare us to act heroically. In addition, we can practice heroism by imagining situations in which we would need to act, learning from role models, and using the lessons we have learned from difficult life experiences to help others.

Adherence to our moral compass anchors us as individuals and can bring us together in a common purpose in difficult times. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,

[the] availability of collective strength that we find in strong com- munities held together by moral bonds is an important source of resilience that we will need as we face the kind of uncertainty that seems to be the mark of the twenty-first century thus far. It is easier to face the future without fear when we know we do not do so alone. (Sacks 2020)

We can become more faithful to our moral compass by taking an inventory of our most closely held beliefs and values, by learning from the writings and examples of others, and discussing our beliefs with people whose values we respect. When we most need to do the right thing, we will be ready.

Excerpted from Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges by Steven M. Southwick, Dennis S. Charney, and Jonathan M. DePierro. Published by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Dennis S. Charney, Steven M. Southwick, and Jonathan M. DePierro

Steven M. Southwick, Yale University Medical School, ConnecticutSteven Southwick, MD, was Glenn H. Greenberg Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, PTSD, and Resilience at Yale University Medical School and Medical Director Emeritus of the Clinical Neuroscience Division of the National Center for PTSD of the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Dr. Southwick was one of the world's leading experts in psychological trauma and human resilience. His collaborations with Dr. Dennis Charney led to foundational discoveries about the biology and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, and factors that support resilience. His own resilience while fighting advanced prostate cancer for five years was an inspiration to his friends, colleagues, and family. He passed away on April 20, 2022, and Resilience, which he worked on through his final weeks, is dedicated to his life and legacy.

Dennis S. Charney, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New YorkDennis S. Charney, MD, is Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and President for Academic Affairs for the Mount Sinai Health System. Dr. Charney is a world expert in the neurobiology of mood and anxiety disorders. He has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the causes of anxiety, fear, and depression, and among his discoveries is use of ketamine for the treatment of depression – a major advance in the past fifty years of clinical care. He also focuses on understanding the psychology and biology of human resilience, which has included work with natural disaster survivors, combat veterans, and COVID-19 frontline healthcare workers. He has over 600 publications to his name, including books, chapters, and academic articles. In 2016 he was the victim of a violent crime that tested his personal resilience.

Jonathan M. DePierro, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New YorkJonathan M. DePierro, PhD, is Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Associate Director of Mount Sinai's Center for Stress, Resilience, and Personal Growth. Dr. DePierro, a clinical psychologist, is an expert in psychological resilience and the treatment of trauma-related mental health conditions. After many years working with individuals impacted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he now focuses on supporting the mental health needs of healthcare workers. Having experienced extensive bullying throughout his childhood, he learned important lessons about resilience that continue to inform his clinical and research work.