James Doty’s Helper’s High

What will save humanity? A research scientist says it will be compassion, kindness, and open-heartedness. That is, altruism.

James Doty’s Helper’s High

He gave away his last $30 million and felt free—a case study in altruism.

James Doty is not a subject under study at the altruism research center that he founded at Stanford in 2008, but he could be. In 2000, after building a fortune as a neurosurgeon and biotech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, he lost it all in the dotcom crash: $75 million gone in six weeks. Goodbye villa in Tuscany, private island in New Zealand, penthouse in San Francisco. His final asset was stock in a medical-device company he’d once run called Accuray. But it was stock he’d committed to a trust that would benefit the universities he’d attended and programs for AIDS, family, and global health. Doty was $3 million in the hole. Everyone told him to keep the stock for himself. He gave it away—all $30 million of it. ‘Giving it away has had to be the most personally fulfilling experience I’ve had in my life,’ Doty, 58, said on a recent sunny afternoon at Stanford. In 2007, Accuray went public at a valuation of $1.3 billion. That generated hundreds of millions for Doty’s donees and zero for him. ‘I have no regrets,’ he said….

With a seed donation of $150,000 from the Dalai Lama, whom Doty had met in a chance encounter—[he formed] the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, or CCARE, part of Stanford’s School of Medicine….

As global inequality rises, Doty said that the psychological understanding of how conditions of material wealth and social class may influence our behavior toward others will only grow in significance. ‘People who have been given certain privileges have the obligation to watch out for the weakest’….

Charles Darwin himself assumed that compassion was essential to the survival of our species; evolutionary theorists have speculated that the ability to recognize others in distress, and the desire to help, is critical to the care of vulnerable offspring, and to cooperation with non-kin. ‘We’ve kind of misread Darwin,’ said Simon-Thomas, the Berkeley neuroscientist, who co-wrote the first evolutionary analysis and empirical review of compassion in 2010. ‘We’ve come up with the idea that ‘survival of the fittest’ means that the strongest man wins, when what actually wins is highly collective, communal behavior’….

What researchers call the ‘helper’s high’ may be aided by the release of endorphins. By virtually every measure of health we know—reducing blood pressure, anxiety, stress, inflammation, and boosting mood—compassion has been shown to help us. These are some of the ways we are encouraged to establish trust and community, which have long been necessary to human survival….

Sitting in his office, Doty said the goal for his center is to translate what has evolutionarily occurred—our tendency to feel connection to family, to tribe, to nation—to extend to a common idea of the world being our collective home. ‘We have to go from this viewpoint that our family is defined by our mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle’—he thumped his desk—’to saying the world is my home. And not be overwhelmed by that, to have a sense of open-heartedness about that. That’s what’s going to save our humanity.’

Bonnie Tsui, Nautilus