The Meaning of Sin: How Being Bad Is Good For You

Modern science reveals a silver lining in even the blackest cloak of sin.

Chris BuzelliChris BuzelliOver 1,400 years ago, Pope Gregory named wrath, greed, envy, sloth, pride, gluttony, and lust as the Seven Deadly Sins. But that’s so A.D. 590. See why in these seven true stories:

Wrath

Each day, Donna Alexander watches an array of customers enter her Anger Room in Dallas, smash everything from TVs to mannequins, and exit smiling and content. And they pay her up to $75 for the privilege.

“I saw a lot of fights when I was growing up,” she explains. “So I thought that if there were a place to let that anger out, the world would be better.”

Destructotherapy, as it’s often called, is a controversial form of anger management among mental-health professionals, but the general population seems drawn to it. In Spain, entrepreneurs have organized outdoor events where townsfolk pay to demolish cars, appliances, and computers with sledgehammers. In Berlin, two artists designed a vending machine called the Anger Release Machine, which automatically smashes ordinary plates for $1 or crystal glasses for $20.

The chronic suppression of anger can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, and sleep disorders, studies show. When you let loose on occasion, you vent the emotional steam from life’s pressure cooker.

If you’re married, a little bit of wrath might even save your life. A report from the University of Michigan determined that couples who regularly got problems off their chests lived longer than those who internalized them.

Constructive ire can also have a positive career impact. Research shows it can fuel ambition, sway negotiations, instill a sense of control, and confer higher status, whereas those who bottle up their frustration are up to three times more likely to admit to being disappointed and hitting a glass ceiling.

Ladies take note: Expressing anger on the job appears to be acceptable for only men. Angry outbursts from women are more likely to be attributed to emotional imbalance.

Take indignation over that injustice into the Anger Room.

Chris BuzelliGreed

Greed has been the star of the Seven Deadlies over the last few years. The insatiable desire to accumulate wealth has resulted in Ponzi schemes, real estate bubbles, and banking crises.

But J. Keith Murnighan, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, says greed still has some redeeming qualities. “When it spurs people on, as it does within capitalistic systems, it has positive value,” he notes. “And greed for knowledge … What’s wrong with that? So it depends on the type of greed you’re talking about.”

Even materialistic greed can have positive effects. Research shows that when you’re pursuing and acquiring what you desire, you feel great. This has the potential to benefit not only you personally, in the form of happiness and health, but also those around you, including family, friends, and, depending on your business, shareholders and society. And in the end, even if you’ve acquired great wealth—admirably or not—others’ resentments are often forgotten if the proceeds are used altruistically. Murnighan points out that Andrew Carnegie and even Warren Buffett took advantage of economic situations in their respective eras, when “they were able to acquire enormous resources for a whole lot less, because others were at a disadvantage.” But Carnegie is remembered more today for being a great supporter of the arts, and Buffett is widely admired for pledging the bulk of his $44 billion fortune to charity.

“It’s basic human nature to feel greed,” says Murnighan. “Whether it’s a sin depends on the limits we place on it.”

Chris BuzelliChris BuzelliEnvy

Helen Jane Hearn has a lot going for her. The 37-year-old wife, mother, and blogger (helenjane.com) is director of content at Federated Media Publishing in San Francisco and a part-time home-entertainment consultant. Nonetheless, she admits to envying other women often and letting their success percolate in her as “toxic hate.” Then she read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and learned to make a “jealousy map.” Now, instead of stewing about what others have that she wants, Hearn draws three columns on a blank page and headlines them: Who? Why? and Now What? Then she writes down the person she envies, why she envies her, and what she’s going to do about it. “I now take [envy] as a call for action,” Hearn explains. “It’s a tool to motivate myself.”

What Hearn has done, say those who study the emotion, is convert malicious envy (the classic sin) into benign envy (a potential win). Dutch researchers recently determined that benign envy, which lacks the venom of its poisonous big sister, motivates us to improve. And a series of studies at Texas Christian University showed that when individuals are experiencing envy, they actually have superior mental focus and recall about the envied person.

Chris BuzelliChris BuzelliSloth

Are you sweating? You should be, says Richard Wiseman, a British psychologist who measures pedestrian walking speeds around the world. Since the early 1990s, he says, the human race has sped up ten percent. But where is all this hurrying getting us? When you stop to consider that some of our greatest discoveries came while doing nothing (Newton sitting under an apple tree, Archimedes taking a bath), you might realize it’s this incessant busyness that’s the real deadly sin.

Take Chrissie Wellington, for example. She’s a four-time winner of the grueling Ironman World Championship, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. She logs thousands of miles per year to stay in shape—but just as important as all that training is doing nothing. “I normally take two total rest days a month,” she says. “Buttocks-on-sofa is the position I assume. It’s not wasted time. The body needs a break to consolidate its training gains. Resting makes me better, faster, stronger, and more resilient.”

In fact, taking it slow may have benefits in other areas, like weight loss. Adults sleeping five or fewer hours per night have a 55 percent greater chance of being obese. Research reveals that lack of sleep disrupts the hormones leptin and ghrelin, which play a role in appetite regulation. Daydreaming also has its upside.

Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that people who let their minds wander for 12 minutes performed 41 percent better on a subsequent creative task than if they hadn’t daydreamed.

Meditation, of course, is a form of relaxation. And the benefits are real. In a study at the University of Washington, those given eight weeks of meditation training were able to concentrate longer with less anxiety. That’s why Mark Bertolini, the CEO of health-care provider Aetna, starts each day with yoga and meditation. “That’s my wellness program,” he states.

Chris BuzelliChris BuzelliPride

Jon Katzenbach has been a business consultant for more than 45 years. But when he’s hired to advise companies, he doesn’t automatically recommend cutting costs or incentivizing executives. Instead, he believes there’s a much more powerful motivator than money: pride.

“Just look at the employees of such extraordinary organizations as Southwest Airlines, Apple, or the U.S. Marine Corps,” explains Katzenbach. “Emotional commitment—not logical compliance—is what determines employees’ exceptional service, innovation, dedication, and ultimately success.”

Katzenbach’s first step often is to identify “pride builders” within the organization—employees who are passionate about work and good at motivating others—and then use them as role models. “Pride in the work itself is the key to motivating peak-performing employees,” he adds.

Sound like an evil scheme? Hardly. Although pride is regarded by some as the original deadly sin, what we’re talking about is achievement-oriented pride, and it can be born within individuals or groups, whether corporate, ethnic, or civic.

Studies show that achievement-oriented pride creates feelings of optimism and worthiness. It is motivational, resulting in greater perseverance and personal development. It also fosters leadership and admiration. It even changes physical appearance, prompting more smiles and better posture, which affect social standing.

Among various minority populations, ethnic pride has been linked to better mental health, higher grades, less substance abuse, decreased violence, and lower risk of heart disease. Researchers speculate that the dignity and self-respect that come with achievement-oriented pride boost well-being—a potent life vaccine. And it’s not just members of ethnic groups who can benefit. Gay Pride, I Love NY, Made in America, Semper Fi … all are mottos of pride around which diverse people rally and ultimately better themselves. You just have to be careful not to exhibit too much hubris about it.

Chris BuzelliChris BuzelliGluttony

Thirty-six percent of American adults are obese, so it may seem there could be no upside to gluttony. But this is one instance in which the sin may actually be the solution. Scientists at Tel Aviv University discovered that adding a little dessert to an otherwise balanced breakfast facilitates weight loss.

Imagine it this way: In front of you is a dashboard, just like in your car. One of the gauges is willpower. When that needle is pointing to full, you are cruising along, ignoring all the fatty foods that make you heavy. But each time you’re tempted by something and tap a little willpower to avoid it, the needle slips a bit. After a full day of denying yourself, your willpower is on empty—and that’s why you go elbow-deep into a bag of chips. So a little indulgence—a cookie at breakfast or the occasional cheat meal—keeps that needle tending toward full and strengthens your willpower over the long haul.

For instance, prior to the 2008 Olympics, the Slim-Fast world was staggered by reports that Michael Phelps ate 12,000 calories per day, much of it from pizza, pasta, and pancakes. Phelps denied the figure, but it wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. For endurance athletes who burn 9,000 or more calories a day in training, being gluttonous is the only way to sustain energy. Likewise, if you’re preparing for a half marathon or a two-week bike tour, raising your caloric intake may be necessary for you to stay healthy and competitive.

Pigging out may also be the secret ingredient to a successful political career. A 2010 University of Missouri–Kansas City study found that overweight male candidates were perceived as more reliable, honest, inspiring, and better able to perform a strenuous job than their thinner adversaries. Once again, ladies, these findings held true only for men.

Chris BuzelliChris BuzelliLust

Before she was 30, Jennifer Armstrong had a fiancé and a wedding date. Then she read a novel, attended a reading of it, and somehow found herself sharing watermelon margaritas with the author on “a perfect, endless June night.” And just like that, the wedding was called off. Lust changed her life.

“I became a karaoke aficionado during late nights out with new friends and started a band,” she blogs at jenniferkarmstrong.com. “I had extra time and ambition, so I launched a feminist website, sexyfeminist.com, with a friend. I got an agent and wrote a book. I dyed my hair black. And I saved enough money to get the best apartment I’ve ever had, in Brooklyn, all by myself.”

Although the relationship with the novelist withered and she regrets the “uncool” way she broke off her engagement, she says “the experience taught me everything I know about love and sex.”

Armstrong’s experience is a real-life example of research conducted at the University of Amsterdam. By triggering the mechanisms in the brain for analytical thinking, lust helped study subjects focus better on the present and its details: “I want him—now!” (Love, by comparison, triggered long-term thinking and creativity.) So the lust Armstrong felt for the novelist helped her see the flaws in her near-marriage more clearly.

And gentlemen, listen up: Lust also dampens a woman’s natural disgust response. When Dutch researchers asked women to drink from a cup containing an insect or to wipe their hands with a used tissue, those who were sexually aroused registered less disgust than those who weren’t. So when she’s feeling amorous, you don’t have to try so hard to be glamorous.

Overall, a lust for sex can certainly be destructive, but a lust for life is virtuous. As British philosopher Simon Blackburn points out in his book Lust, the emotion is life- affirming. It’s invigorating, fun, and very few of us would be here without it. Like all the Seven Sins, what determines whether it’s deadly is a simple matter of whether we control it or it controls us.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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