Altruism—concern for the welfare of others— is considered a bedrock virtue by nearly all religions and cultures. From an evolutionary perspective, we’re wired for helping others. Such conduct is also seen in many other animals, including chimpanzees and elephants; even bees take care of each other.
Altruism generally means selflessness, and gain for oneself is not uppermost in the mind of a true altruist, of course. And yet most of us believe that “give and you shall receive.” The idea that altruism benefits the giver as well as the receiver usually derives from the fact (or hope) that if you provide help to others, one day when you need it there’ll be someone to help you. What goes around, comes around.
Social scientists, psychologists and medical researchers are finding other ways altruism rewards the giver. Notably, giving to others can be seen in the larger context of social support, which research has consistently linked to health and longevity. For instance, as we’ve previously reported, a 2010 analysis of 148 studies linked stronger social ties to a 50 percent reduction in mortality rates. One likely explanation is that social connectedness “buffers” against stress. That is, it provides emotional and tangible resources that help us deal with adverse events and illness and maybe even enhances resistance to illness.
Social support may sound like something we receive, but a recent study, which focused on the giving side of the equation, suggests that the biggest health benefit may come from providing support to others, rather than receiving it. Published in the American Journal of Public Health in early 2013, it involved 846 people over the age of 65, who were interviewed about stressful events they had experienced in the past year and about 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.
I don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish about caregiving. I know that being a caregiver for a sick or disabled family member can have the opposite effects, taking a heavy toll on health and spirit. So it's not surprising that some studies have found that caregiving can impair the helpers’ health. Yet this study suggests that often there's a silver lining, and some other research on caregivers has confirmed this.
For instance, a new study of 3,500 caregivers (average age 63, mostly in the South) has found that, on average, they had a lower mortality rate than their matched noncaregiving counterparts. This was especially true of people taking care of an elderly parent. While there are legitimate concerns about the negative health effects of high-strain caregiving, 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.”
If you have time and energy left after helping friends and family, 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.
Originally published June 2013. Updated November 2013.