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It is most blessed to give and to receive, studies suggest

“Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
–Acts 20:35

Consider the congregation member who for years has visited the sick in his parish, but who is fearful to seek pastoral care himself when a loved one contracts AIDS. Or the women who volunteers to be a mentor to unemployed congregants, but finds herself too embarrassed to seek help herself when she loses her job.

In a culture that prizes rugged individualism, and can interpret personal needs as a sign of weakness, many Americans find it is more acceptable to give than to receive.

Yet the blessings appear to multiply when you are able to do both, according to new research.

Americans who both meet the needs of others and are cared for in a nurturing community are much more likely to love and trust their neighbors, studies indicate.

That appears to be particularly true in religious communities where caring for one another affirms the central admonition to love your neighbor as yourself.

One new national study found congregation members who assisted others and received care themselves were dramatically more likely to place “complete trust” in their fellow worshipers than members who only gave or received help.

What’s more, the trust and caring relationships members build in their congregations do not appear to end at the door of the church, temple or mosque.

The 2012 Measuring Morality Study indicates that the most religiously active Americans are more likely to both be trusting and to strive to be compassionate and merciful.

Giving individuals who are able to accept acts of mercy from others appear most likely to love their neighbors.

Reciprocity matters

It is not only religious communities that benefit from mutual care.

The worker who receives help from a mentor is more likely to extend help to a colleague. And, in any organization, the member who visits someone in the hospital and is himself consoled by other members at a loved one’s funeral is likely to have more positive feelings about others in the group.

But more than self-interest is involved, research indicates.

In a new study involving 125 part-time MBA students, researchers found the concept of “paying it forward,” or helping others if you have been helped, had stronger and more lasting effects in helping others than acting out of consideration of a future self-benefit.

Such actions arising from an attitude of gratitude toward others appear also to contribute to a “virtuous cycle” of cooperation, the study found. As participants “developed a history of helping one another, more and more of them had reasons to feel grateful and to reflect on benefits received, paying it forward as a result,” said researchers Wayne Baker of the University of Michigan and Nathaniel Bulkley of Innovation Places LLC.

Still, religious communities appear to be especially fertile grounds for building greater trust and more tolerant and compassionate attitudes toward others, some research suggests. These communities offer their most active members multiple opportunities to build social ties and volunteer in an environment that promotes loving one’s neighbor.

Consider these findings from the 2012 Measuring Morality Study:

People who need people: Half of Americans who attend services more than once a week describe themselves as being comfortable depending on others and having others depend on them. Just a third of people who never attend embrace such dependence. Nearly twice as many non-attenders as frequent attenders said they found it difficult to trust others completely, or to depend on them.
Helping hands: Seven in 10 of the most frequent attenders, compared to less than half of nonchurchgoers, see themselves in the statement, “It’s very important to me to help the people around me. I want to care for their well-being.”
Mercy, mercy: Nine in 10 of the most active churchgoers say being caring compassionate, merciful and cooperative is an important part of who they are; two-thirds of non-attenders attach the same importance to those characteristics.

Religious communities may have special incentives based on teaching and tradition to value acts of caring for one another, researchers note.

“It speaks to a lot of ways that we expect religion to function,” said sociologist Jeffrey Seymour of Gustavus Adolphus College.

Trust in synergy

Giving and receiving help do matter on their own, according to a study of more than 1,100 member or affiliates of religious communities based on data from the 2006 Portraits of American Life Study.

Congregants who only gave help to other members were twice as likely to fully trust their fellow worshipers as participants who neither gave nor received help. Members who only received help were nearly three times as likely to have the same high level of trust.

But it was the combination of both that made the biggest difference, with givers and receivers being more than five times as likely to have complete trust. Researchers Seymour, Karen Gregg of the University of St. Francis, and Michael Welch and Jessica Collett of the University of Notre Dame reported the findings in the latest issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Yet being able to accept support from others does not come easy for many Americans.

In congregations, the message of being a cheerful and gracious giver is rarely balanced with the idea of seeing the same signs of grace in receiving care from others.

Leaders of religious communities and other organizations may want to consider promoting cultures that place value both on being able to accept help and to “pay it forward” to others, suggest Seymour and Baker, author of the new book, “United America.”

The bottom line: It is blessed to both give and receive.

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