The Huffington Post:
I have a colleague who would not be alive today if it were not for a complete stranger, who volunteered to give her a kidney. Her kidneys were failing, and she would not have survived for long. Now she is healthy, and has been for some years. So I understand in a personal way that living kidney donation is an extraordinary gift, a far-too-rare act of pure altruism.
Yet I have not offered to make the same gift of my kidney. I have a friend who did, who donated one of her kidneys to a stranger, just out of the goodness of her heart. I admired her, but it made me nervous when she did it, for the same reason that it makes me nervous now. What if something goes wrong? What if my remaining kidney should fail? What if a loved one needs a kidney somewhere down the line?
Making a living kidney donation is not risk-free, which is why it’s called extraordinary altruism. Very little is known about the origins of such unusual generosity, in part because it’s so rare. Fewer than one in 10,000 people take such a step, so it’s been almost impossible to study the social and psychological precursors of this action.
Until now. Two Georgetown University psychological scientists recently figured out a way to explore the roots of unambiguous altruism, using aggregate data from states and national surveys. Kristin Brethel-Haurwitz and Abigail Marsh wanted to test an idea — called the “engine model” of well-being — which basically says that people become kind and generous when their own lives are going well. More specifically, the model predicts that objective measures of well-being — like income and good health — lead to positive emotions and a greater sense of meaning and purpose, which in turn promote genuine beneficence.
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