Gail Sheehy: The Secret to a Longer Life

Selflessness, says bestselling author Gail Sheehy

What if it isn’t a dog-eat-dog world? What if caring for a dog or for a mom with Alzheimer’s makes you stronger and allows you to live longer?

Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley are challenging our long-held belief that humans are hard-wired to be selfish.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was misinterpreted by his male popularizers, the researchers say. Rather than “every man for himself,” Darwin believed that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.

Why has it taken so long for Darwin’s central revelation to be properly interpreted?

“We’ve had too many men in social science,” Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner told me in an interview. “Female scientists acknowledge that ‘fight or flight’ is part of human nature, but so is caring for people.”

This is no touchy-feely feminist theory. Hard science is showing how the human capacity to care is wired into our brains and nervous systems.

In my book Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence, I urge women who assume the whole responsibility for taking care of an elderly parent or chronically ill spouse to build a Circle of Care. Reach out to your brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors and community volunteers to help you care, because no one can perform this overwhelming role alone. You will be as stunned as I to learn how the most selfless caregivers are rewarded with greater longevity.

Stephanie Brown, associate professor of preventive medicine at SUNY-Stony Brook, followed a group of older adults caring for family members with dementia and other illnesses.

If they offered care more than 14 hours a week, they were less likely to die in a seven-year period than their peers.

“Survival of the Kindest” is not just a theory. It is becoming a revolutionary cultural movement. There are many signs that caring is gaining currency.

Keltner, who has been studying the science of this instinct for 15 years, says we are coming to the end of our Gordon Gekko-Ivan Boesky-Bernie Madoff 25-year cycle of greed. Berkeley and Stanford universities now have compassion centers devoted to the study and teaching of this theory.

It will run up against hostility among the Hobbseians. Ayn Rand wrote, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” As Americans, we have a cultural bias against caring.

Oh, sure, we lavish our families with gifts during the holiday season, but in a capitalist system based on unbridled competition, we worry that if we care, we lose. Compassion is a woman’s word. In men, it’s cast as wimpy, when in fact it makes us stronger under stress and more highly respected by our peers.

For so long we have repeated the careless aphorism “Nice guys finish last.” But the 40 richest Americans who took the Giving Pledge to commit half their fortunes to doing good are no spring chickens. Here is my reinterpretation: Nice guys die last.

Editor’s Note: Journalist and lecturer Gail Sheehy is the author of 16 books about adult life stages, including Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence. This story appears in USA Today

18 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Lila says:

    For anyone looking for more insight into evolution and Darwinism in a fun, engaging way, try anything written by the late Stephen Jay Gould.  In college we read Ever Since Darwin, Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, The Mismeasure of Man, and The Panda’s Thumb, all collections of essays dealing with evolutionary theories (or debunking historical “theories”).
    He was not a big sociobiology advocate, but he did ponder it as an explanation supporting the evolution of altruism, as primates are social creatures.

  2. avatar D C says:

    I hope you are right about this.  I have to admit, at times I have felt like I have done my children a disservice because I’ve raised them to be compassionate individuals.  They have been picked on and made fun of for not being as cool as other kids because they care about people.  But they are still young (all still in high school/college).  I like to think as they move on into adulthood their compassionate natures will serve them well. 

    I have also been the caretaker for an aging/ill parent (cancer, died in ’02) and I must say it was the most stressful thing I have ever done.  I have 3 brothers, but only one of them helped and only for a short time (lived out of state, mom was in remission so I took her to stay with him for 2 weeks so I could rest).

    It was also damaging financially — I ended up losing a good job because I couldn’t keep up with it, and my family, AND my mother’s needs.  But I wouldn’t do anything differently if I had it to do again.  I know in my heart I did right by her, and my children gained a few more chapters in their education in compassion. 

    As for living longer… I just want to be here long enough for any grandchildren I have to be old enough to remember me when I’m gone.  Since my kids seem to be on the slow track romance-wise, I may have to live a very long time for me to get my wish.

  3. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    No matter how we all would love the idea of “the circle of care” when things get tough with family, no matter how much “suggestions” are made that we should be sharing the responsibility, when it comes down to it, it seems that one person assumes all – or the largest part of the up close and personal care.  Family members send money, thinking that this gets them off the hook.  But as the years have gone by, I have seen a single family member absolutely run ragged and into the ground in becoming “caregiver”.
    Much as I find it interesting that long-time caregivers are granted a longer life by far, I have seen them age drastically “on the job”, making that “carrot” a bit less appealing.  And then I have another question:  when we give our love and time and compassion as a caregiver, do we want to do it more readily with that “carrot” in mind?  Isn’t real compassion given without any expectation of receiving???  Or better said, shouldn’t it be?  Just thoughts — but thoughts from one who has had the role of caregiver more times than I would have once imagined.  It is definitely a vast learning experience, heartrending, and difficult.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      And why is it only one? I’ve watched this over and over. The others send money to the siblings and occasionaly call the parent. Maybe come by to see the parent from time to time.  And the one ends up a nervous wreck.  And I have to wonder if they live longer. 

      And it’s a problem whether the family is rich or poor.  One always is the one who steps forward. The rest just assume a check and a phone call and an occasional visit fulfills their obligation to their parents. Welcome to America.  Ayn Rand would be proud. Although she would probably support the use of “terminal sedation” for everyone over 70 who developed a cold.  Get rid of them before it turns into pneumonia and it costs more.

      We talk about abortion in this country. We never talk about terminal sedation.  Which has become quite common, and legal, in hospice.  The children of course really make the decision. Which solves the problem of who will become the caregiver. 

      I don’t know why this column has rattled me but it has. I suppose it’s because I realize some still have the rose-colored glasses glued firmly in place. 

  4. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Ayn Rand wrote, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.”


    And that idea has become the ideology of modern America.  Compassionate conservatism. “As long as it doesn’t cost me anything.”  Took me a long time to accept that people are innately evil. You choose to be good. And for most, honestly, it is too much trouble to be good. And it doesn’t pay very well. 

    One need only look at Wall Street where everyone who thought the little people could just pay for the losses at the casino still think the little people can pay for the losses.  Tax them? Nonsense. They are the backbone of America. A spineless America apparently. 

    Altruism went out the window along time ago. Along with ethics. And compassion.  Some of us do have the capacity to feel for others and to feel the need to care for others in need.  We are in the very small minority in this country. I get ill thinking of what is coming down the road as Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, start “balancing the budget” off the backs of the little people. Most of whom will end up jobless, homeless and no longer able to support themselves let alone the rich. And believe me, the rich only care about the little people taking care of them. The poor can just fend for themselves finally.  Reality is reality. 

    The Fabulous Forty are to be commended. But don’t expect many to follow their examples. And keep in mind one of our billionaires who is a “Mr.” WowOwow set up a foundation not long ago to continue to promote the “trickle down theory” as the only economic theory that has been proven to work. For the billionaires, it has. They just neglect to correct the little error in the phrase. It is really “trickle up theory.”   Their patron saint of course is PT Barnum. 

  5. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    I have been a caregiver for over twenty years with my husband, mother and now a father-in-law with dementia. In all that time I have never seen a circle of care. My sister-in-law lives over 2500 miles away so she can’t help. When I had pneumonia and bronchitis for over three months several years ago friends helped me but my family did not. When my father-in-law cracked my hip in a fit of anger my brother mowed a sister’s lawn because she had a headache. Never once did he offer to mow mine when I was physically unable to do so. We hired it done. One sister did offer to help at the start but put so many restrictions on what she would do it was impossible to taker her up on her offer. An example of that was when I had minor surgery. I had drop off my father-in-law after ten and pick him up before two in the afternoon. I hired help because my appointment was at eight in the morning. She still reminds people that “she offered to help” I was uncooperative.
    When my father-in-law went in to a Veterans Home I was criticized for taking the easy way out despite the fact that the man could never be left alone day or night and he rarely slept more than two hours at a stretch. I have not aged gracefully nor do I feel blessed by being a caregiver. That does not mean I’d abdicate the responsibility because it has to be done. I put myself in the shoes of those I am caring for knowing I’d hate to be seen as the family burden. I hope that I am teaching my sons that when the going gets rough the tough don’t run instead they live up to the responsibility they are taught.

  6. avatar Sabrina Friend says:

    I am the distant relative.  My brother is local.  We share decision making and supporting our parents but he does more because he is there.  I try to go regularly now but there are responsibilities at home that cannot be shirked.  When my father was dying, my brother ran his business from my parents’ bedroom and was the greatest support that my father and mother could have.  I dropped everything and moved back home.  It was the greatest thing I could do, to help my father die at peace.  Atheists have a harder time dying because there is nothing peaceful about it.
    I have tried to get my mother to come and live with me or near me so that I could take the lion’s share of the burden.  She refuses.
    Be specific with siblings.  So much can be done from a distance, banking, mail management, doctors appointments.  Tell your siblings to call mother daily at a certain time of day.  I HAD to add this to my husband’s calendar, but he did it.  Imagine how a two minute call can brighten a day.

    • avatar D C says:

      Sabrina, I appreciate your input.  I didn’t expect my out of state brother to do any of those long distance things you mentioned, but I DID expect him to make SOME kind of offer to help, which he didn’t.  My mom was the martyr type, but once I got close to 40, I decided I was old enough to say and do anything I pleased, as long as I was willing to take the consequences that go with it.  So when my mom was in remission and able to be away from her doctors for a bit, I called my brother and said, “I am bringing mom to your house where you will make sure she is taken care of for 2-3 weeks.”  I didn’t ask… I told.  And they were fine with that.  Some people have to be led around — usually men I think.  But you’re right… you have to be specific — you can’t expect everyone to read your mind and just know what you need and provide it.  That is a myth that needs to die it’s rightful death. 

  7. avatar Susan Gabriel says:

    Excellent premise for a book. I hope it is wildly successful. Compassion makes heroes and heroines of us all.

    Susan Gabriel
    author of Seeking Sara Summers

  8. avatar Vicki Corum says:

    It is my understanding that one will live longer if one is compassionate and takes care of those who need tending.  Well, my experience is when you are done “taking care of” you are too tired to want that extra life awarded you.  I am a Service Coordinator, On-Site Manager, Activity Director, Office Manager, etc. of an Independent Living, HUD subsidized building for the elderly and disabled.  We house 112 apartments.  I have watched what the government and what family members have done to this population.  I have seen many of my tenants come here alone, live alone, and die alone.  I have cried more tears over people that are not related to me and that I was never “responsible” for.  I have cooked and picked up after and worried (alot) about people who would have never been in my life if not for this leg of my journey.  I am the uber-caretaker in that 24/7 I am on call for a building in which at least 4 or 5 people are in need of something at all times (if only a minute of attention or care).  As far as family, in some instances I met very few members until the death of my tenant and then I met them as they came to scavage over the few belongings left.  If I sound angry, you better betch ya.  I have even forgotten why I started to write this…..oh yea.  It is not necessarily worth that extra time you are allowed to live when you caretake but for many of us there is no other way to live (and many a day I cuss my fate).  But that is the hand I have been dealt and sometimes I wouldn’t swtich for the world and other times I would change my fate in a minute.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      You live in an America that isn’t discussed much on wowOwow for some reason. Too horrible to think about perhaps.  

      Gails’ point is about selflessness. Unfortunately our society is permeated by selfishness. And it is to be found in the richest and the poorest of circles. I agree that selflessness is a virtue that probably pays off in the end. But you have to be able to afford to be selfless because, well, again, no good deed goes unpunished in our society and in fact my experience and observation has been that often the people you help the most are the people who will help you the least in return. 
      I had such hope two years ago. I read the latest from Wikileaks and listen to the rhetoric in Washington and there is little hope at this point. Hope is something perhaps you have to be able to afford to have. Just as selflessness is something you have to be able to afford to be. And a growing number of people in this country no longer can afford to be selfless. 

      As for caregiving it is much easier when you can afford the caregiving. Most cannot. Most turn to Medicaid because they cannot assume the costs of nurses and rehabiliative care and prescriptions. And cannot leave their sibling or parent or child at home because they have to work. If they have work. A growing number of people do not. We are about to see a second Social Security system in place to take care of displaced workers. Who can no longer compete with younger workers and cannot compete with “guest workers” and Congress seems adamant that everyone has a right to be here. Particularly if an employer can hire them for half the wages.  Those will be the ones hired by the rich if they are allowed to keep their tax cuts. Or so they say.  Very few will be hiring anyone. But it sounds good, doesn’t it? 

      I think it’s time for someone on wowOWow to take off the rose-colored glasses and get into the America no one wants to talk about.  Out of sight, out of mind doesn’t work so well anymore.

  9. avatar Linda Myers says:

    My sister provided full time care for her mother n law for ten years with Alzheimers, kept her looking beautiful and there wasn’t anything she would not have done for her and never complained. She has now outlived her mother n law and husband, so I guess there is some truth to this.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      I have to ask if she was able to do so simply because she could afford the time to do so?  Two women I knew, sisters-in-law, took care of their husbands, and each other, and did so without hesitation, without mere sense of obligation, and without any real support system besides each other.  They both also had invested wisely from years in real estate and could afford the time to do so.  Many cannot. And I suspect in those cases, the “wear-and-tear” shortens the lifespan. Stress has been found to be either a contributing factor or an exacerbating factor in almost every disease known to man at this point.  The acts of selflessness perhaps lessen the stress but it depends on where the stress comes from. Caregivers can give only what they can afford to in terms of time.

      I worry about the proposed budget cuts that are coming.  They threaten the ability to be selfless simply because they will restrict even further the access to support systems all caregivers need.   Whether its care for an elderly parent.  Or the stray cat that came out of nowhere. As more and more have less and less the ability to be selfless is replaced by the reality of barely surviving.  No money and no time for anything or anyone else but themselves.

      The Republicans, and some Democrats, are trading extension of the unemployment benefits which will add $13 billion to the deficit for extension of the tax cuts for those who make in excess of $200,000 single/250,000 married filing a joint return which will add $700 billion ot the deficit. And they will cut social service programs to “cover” part of the $700 billion.  Medicare/Medicaid will see cuts.  Agencies and organizations that provide caregiver services, often for free, will see their funding cut as well.  NO doub the rich will claim they will merely use part of their windfall to support these agencies and organizations. Just like they claim they have created jobs and will continue to create jobs.  Reality is according to the philanthropic groups that “keep a tally” donations have fallen, not risen, with regard to the tax cuts. The rich are merely keeping the money for themselves and spending i on themselves.  And will continue to do so.  While donations are down, purchases of luxury items have gone up.  That says all that needs to be said about the reality of selflessness in this country.

      • avatar Linda Myers says:


        She could afford financially to give her the care as well as afford for her to be cared for otherwise, money was not the issue either way, in that she was fortunate – maybe. I personally would not have traded my life for hers regardless of the money. I understand the economics which plays a huge part also in being the caregiver.

        I have right sized my life at this time though for now it meant leaving my dog with a friend as a foster mother, who loves animals and has very little resources to feed all the “critters” that cross her property, so I provide for all his needs as well as bird, cat and squirrel food for all the rest at the same time so she can enjoy being a caregiver to animals in a way that she enjoys, if that makes any sense. 🙂 The caregiver part of her and being able to do so has really helped her phsycial self recover from a hard battle this year, so I do believe that caring for others regardless of human or animal raises the energy and is healing if done in a way where stress in others areas such as financially is reduced.

        • avatar Baby Snooks says:

          It makes all the sense in the world and one of the saddest things is when someone is forced to give up the pet because a nursing facility will not allow them.  Often the pet is all they have.

          A growing number of caregiving organizations around the country now provide assistance for the pets.  They bring food for the client and food for the client’s pets.  Realizing how important the pets are.

          There are some jewels in America.  Not everyone is a jerk.

          • avatar Linda Myers says:

            I know right now, my dog is exactly where he should be and doing what he does best. 🙂 He is across the street from where I was and still thinks the area is his to protect, though more than that – he is bringing a friend out of depression.

            Last March her daughter found her in her house alone and dead in her recliner, flat lined and dead weight. Called the paramedics and they revived her with a needle and paddles, and she was angry about being revived. A diabetic coma has caused her to die, being angry was feeling that she did not have much to come back to. Her daughter while she was in rehab had taken her two little dogs to the shelter and they were gone after many years so she would just sit on the porch for hours feeling she no longer had anything to take care of. I could have brought my dog with me, but coaxed her into keeping him for his “better good” at this time was my convincing point with her. She agreed making it clear she would not get “attached” to him and was only doing the job as a friend.

            Now, when I visit them, she is happy with stories of what they have done, his habits etc.., and he is careful to cross between us like he is letting both know he is okay. 🙂 He is very gentle to her and careful to stay calm, I walk in the door and he is ready to play and wear me out – he knows the limits she has still. I miss him so much, though knowing the medicine he provides her just might keep her going into the years ahead happier. He has helped heal her spirit and desire to live and for that, I can share.

          • avatar Baby Snooks says:

            I am having a “bad day” but you have made it a little less “bad” and you of course are the perfect example of “selflessness.”

          • avatar Linda Myers says:

            Nah Baby, there are two things in life I am very selfish about – how I spend my time and my personal boundries, all else is negotiable in creating balance. 🙂 Have a great week!