An unselfish regard for the welfare of others—altruism—is a virtue in nearly all religions and cultures. Some evolutionary psychologists say we’re wired to help others. Such conduct is also seen in many other animals, including chimpanzees and elephants. Even bees take care of each other.
Gain for oneself is not uppermost in the mind of an altruist. Yet most of us believe that “give and you shall receive.” The idea that giving benefits the giver as well as the receiver usually derives from the hope that if you provide help to those in need, this may be an example to others and one day they may be there when you need someone to help you.
Researchers are finding other ways giving to others rewards the giver. Notably, it can be seen in the larger context of social support, which research has consistently linked to health and longevity.
Where altruism meets social support
Social support may sound like something we receive, but some studies suggest that the biggest health benefit may come from providing support to others, rather than receiving it.
For example, in a study of 846 people over age 65 published in the American Journal of Public Health, the subjects were interviewed about stressful events they had experienced in the past year. They were also asked how much they had helped friends or family members—for instance, by providing transportation, doing errands and shopping, performing housework, or providing child care.
After adjusting the data for variables such as age, gender, initial health, personality traits, and support received from others, the researchers found that experiencing stressful events significantly predicted increased mortality over the next five years among people who didn’t provide help to others. It did not do so in helpful people.
“Help given to others is a better predictor of health and well-being than are indicators of social engagement or received social support,” the researchers concluded. In fact, “social connections may be beneficial to the extent that they provide individuals with the opportunity to benefit others.” Helping others can also give us meaningful roles that boost self-esteem, mood, and purpose of life, which in turn can enhance mental and physical health.
Do Wealthy People Give Less to Charity?
Wealthy people give more dollars to charity because they have more to give. But studies show that middle-class and poorer people give away higher proportions of their money.
Another study of over 3,500 caregivers (average age 63, mostly in the South) found similar results. Researchers reported in the American Journal of Epidemiologythat, on average, the caregivers had a lower mortality rate than their matched non-caregiving counterparts. This was especially true of people taking care of an elderly parent. The researchers concluded, “When caregiving is done willingly, at manageable levels, and for individuals who are capable of expressing gratitude, it is reasonable to expect that health benefits might accrue.”
Plenty of studies have found that being a caregiver for a sick or disabled family member can have the opposite effects, taking a heavy toll on health and spirit. Yet the above-mentioned studies suggest that often there’s a silver lining.
If you have time and energy left after helping family and friends, it’s great to do volunteer work in your community. Volunteering for all sorts of service can enhance health and happiness, research has found. And while people of all ages can benefit, older people—especially the retired—seem to benefit the most.
Published March 17, 2016