Attention: Recent research has shown that your serotonin levels may be increased through acts of kindness.
Bear with me. This is more important than you might think.
Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that is associated with moods. People with low serotonin levels are prone to anger and violence. Many antidepressants act by increasing the level of serotonin.
A Virginia researcher discovered that when someone is the beneficiary of an act of kindness, he or she feels a sense of well-being that is apparently associated with a small increase in serotonin. This effect also occurs in the person who PERFORMED the act of kindness.
It also occurs among people who WATCH the act of kindness.
I didn't know any of this a couple of weeks ago when I was about to have lunch at a fast-food restaurant and noticed a homeless guy holding a sign nearby. Although I am very active in a homeless ministry, I was a little pressed for time that day, so I decided to just ask him if I could get him lunch and bring him a bag on my way out.
He turned me down. That's pretty unusual, but I think you will understand why it was important when I start wrapping biochemistry in spirituality.
Just before I left for lunch that day, I had been discussing with someone whether God wants us to do charitable things in public or whether they should be done quietly. Remember, Matthew 6:2 says this: "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full."
My instincts told me that God would be honored to have someone ministering to His lost lambs in full view of others. But I wasn't sure after reading that passage.
Fast-forward back to the fast-food restaurant.
Ten minutes after the homeless guy had turned down my offer for lunch, I was still standing in line at the restaurant. It wasn't until I was next in line that the homeless guy materialized at my elbow.
"Man, I don't know what I was thinking," he said loudly. "Of COURSE you can buy me lunch. Get me whatever you want and thank you very much!"
So now there were a couple dozen people in this restaurant who knew what was going on. They started smiling. They made eye contact with me as I was getting catsup and napkins. They acted like they knew me, like I'd done something for THEM.
I had lunch with the guy, Ricky, listened to his story and tried to help him get into a drug-treatment center. I started to leave when I noticed a New Testament that had been left in my car several months ago. I decided to give it to Ricky, but when I got back in the restaurant, he was gone.
Not to worry. Off in the back corner a guy in a business suit caught my eye. He pointed over my shoulder and mouthed the word, "Bathroom."
That's where Ricky was. I gave him the New Testament and went on my way, leaving a wash of serotonin in my path.
I thought God was pretty clear in that lesson: If your heart is in the right place, if you are not trying to glorify yourself, then I want you to be My candle up on a lightstand for the world to see.
A week went by and I found myself in another fast-food restaurant. As God would have it, a homeless woman I have known for three years was there finishing her lunch.
I grabbed a sandwich and sat down to chat with her. We discussed a book I was reading about the Prodigal Son, then she broke down in tears and told me a story I'd never heard before -- about the two sons she lost to miscarriages.
Again, a couple of dozen people came into that restaurant with all the world's troubles -- work, school, broken relationships, car problems -- and witnessed a homeless woman being hugged by some guy in business attire.
When I went to get a drink refill, every eye was on me, as if I was somehow refilling a dry, dark corner of their souls.
God commands us to love one another. He could have just left it at that.
Instead, He wired us so that obeying His commandment, or even watching someone else's obedience, fills us with joy.
So, you want some fries with that serotonin?
How about we biggie size it?
Al Boyce is a former writer and reporter for The Associated Press. He lives in Raleigh, NC, where he now writes for God.
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