Science is showing that a very old treatment may be the best single thing you can do for your health. The treatment is altruism, or helping others.
According to an article on Mental Health America, “Research indicates that those who consistently help other people experience less depression, greater calm, fewer pains, and better health.”
The results of these feel-good benefits include longer life. According to University of Miami professor Stephen Post, PhD, giving (his word for helping) significantly reduces mortality in later life. Dr. Post is a leading researcher on altruism and author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People.
Dr. Post’s website reports on a study from the University of California at Berkeley, in which 2,000 individuals over age 55 were studied for five years. “Those who volunteered for two or more organizations had an impressive 44% lower likelihood of dying,” he reports. “The only activity that had a slightly higher effect was to stop smoking.”
And sociologist Marc Musick of the University of Texas at Austin has found that individuals over 65 who volunteer are significantly less likely to die over the next eight years than those who do no volunteer work.
Of course, those who volunteered may have been in better health to start with, but researchers controlled for baseline health, economic status, and other things that could affect the results. After controls, the volunteers still had 44% less chance of dying during the study period.
How does this work?
The connections between helping others and your own health are still being investigated. For one thing, helping seems to lower cortisol levels, which reduces insulin resistance and blood pressure.
Helping others reduces depression, and depression seriously interferes with self-care. For me, if I believe I’m doing some good in the world, I am more likely to eat right and do my exercises. Probably the same is true of you.
On the psychological level, performing acts of kindness increases happiness, and happiness is known to be good for you. Other studies have found that providing emotional support to others reduces the effects of stress in seniors.
Mental Health America lists some ways that helping others can help you. Helping can remind you that you’re relatively lucky. It can take your mind off your own worries for a while.
I also think there’s a benefit you get from the people you are helping. Their gratitude or their increased positive feelings will rub off on you. The increased social connection is likely to be good for your health, according to studies.
Here’s a benefit a lot of you can probably relate to. I know I can. Helping reduces anxiety (worry). Anxiety raises cortisol levels and blood pressure.
Sociologist Neal Krause of the University of Michigan followed 976 adults over a period of three years. According to Dr. Post, “Offering social support to others reduced their anxiety over their own economic situation when they were under economic stress.”
Dr. Post also reports that a study from the National Institutes of Health showed that merely deciding to donate to a charity increased the activity in parts of the brain that release the feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin. And a study from Harvard University showed that simply watching a movie that involves helping activity can boost the immune system.
A study led by Stephanie Brown, PhD, in Psychological Science in 2003 found that “mortality was significantly reduced for individuals who reported providing support to friends, relatives, and neighbors, and individuals who reported providing emotional support to their spouse.”
It’s good to start giving as early as you can. Psychologist Paul Wink found that “Giving in high school predicts good physical and mental health in late adulthood, a time interval of over 50 years!”
Making helping work for you
Volunteering is the most obvious way to get the benefits of helping. There are probably 100 places to help in your town, as well as just helping neighbors or family with their needs. It’s a good idea to help people you like, or work in an organization you like. If it’s stressful, you won’t get much benefit.
One form of helping is social activism. When you’re worried about things like hunger, environmental destruction, war, poverty or whatever, doing even one little thing about one little problem makes you feel better. Donating money to a good cause is also good for you, although without the social benefits.
But don’t overdo! You still need to take care of yourself. Mental Health America cautions, “Beware of taking on too much, or you’ll risk feeling resentful. When asked a favor, think it over before saying yes.”
Really, don’t do it if you will resent it. That doesn’t help anyone. Remember, you don’t have to make a huge commitment. Little things are good, too. I’m often astonished when people remind me of something nice I did for them. They remember things I long ago forgot or never considered important.
So don’t underestimate your power to help others. Remember that in helping others you help yourself.
Have a joyous, giving holiday seasons!