Compassion RX: The Many Health Benefits of Altruism
© Galina Pembroke
According to a 2004 University of Chicago survey of over 1300 people, women are more likely than men to feel empathy, and feelings of empathy and altruism are unrelated to financial status.(1) These finding may not surprise you. What is surprising is that these feelings have measurable benefits. Not only for the receiver but for the giver.
Increasing immunity through decreasing stress
Cleveland, Ohio’s The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love studies the benefits of altruism, which they define as “unselfish benevolent love.” Recently Esther M. Sternberg, a research professor who authored The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions (Freeman, 2001) wrote a paper for The Institute. In it she examined mechanisms by which altruistic love affects health, concluding that caring may suppress disease activity and activate immune response.(2)
Sternberg says that altruistic love may heal by decreasing or stopping stress. This is important. The stress-state produces terrible effects through both mind and body. The American Psychological Association states that “psychologists have long known that stress impacts our ability to fight infection.”(3) During stress the brain releases unhealthy chemicals and hormones. This affects our immune cell’s operation, reducing their ability to fight infection and inflammation.
Improved immunity is only the first benefit of altruism. Sternberg says that “it is also possible that altruistic love might activate certain aspects of the ‘relaxation response ‘ in addition to blocking aspects of the stress response,”(4) The relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response. The stress response causes an increase in heart rate, stress hormone and blood pressure while slowing digestion. In contrast, the relaxation response allows our heart rate, blood pressure, digestion and hormonal levels to return to normal.
The relaxation from altruistic acts also helps the body stop pain. Allan Luks, the executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of Health, coined the expression “helper’s high.” This feeling mirrors the calm after a good workout. In the 1980′s, while working as executive director for New York’s Big Brothers Big Sisters, Luks surveyed thousands of volunteers about their experiences. From the results he theorized that helping people creates pain-killing endorphins.(5) Since then, multiple studies have supported Luk’s hypothesis.(6) One, published in 1998, found that this helpers high is healing. From two surveys with a total of 1746 participants, the Institute for the Advancement of Health concluded that helping-induced-relaxation was linked to pain relief, particularly in stress-related disorders. These include lupus, multiple sclerosis, voice loss and headaches.(7)
The same surveys revealed that helping produces pleasant feelings and sensations. A majority of participants described these as physical and locatable. Half of the people writing about their experience described feeling high, warm and an increase in energy. This was most intense during touching or listening to someone. Remarkably, a majority of the study participants said these feelings would reoccur, although muted, when they remembered helping.(8 ) Many other studies have similar conclusions. A 2003 New Zealand study of 115 low-income older adults found that altruistic activity, in this case volunteering with a federally subsidized delivery program, predicted a positive mood. (9) The effects of altruism on a happy mood are well recognized throughout the medical world. Dr. Kathleen Hall, a world renowned expert in stress and founder of The Stress Institute, says that “altruism creates a physiological responses or ‘helpers high’ that makes people feel stronger and more energetic and counters harmful effects of stress.”(10)
Overall Mental Health
The combination of positive feelings and increased energy are conducive to overall mental health. This isn’t just self-evident; it’s studied. A 2003 study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that churchgoers who provided love, caring and support to others had better mental health than those who received their care.(11) Study researcher Carolyn Schwartz, ScD, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School explained: “The act of giving to someone else may have mental-health benefits because the very nature of focusing outside the self counters the self-focused nature of anxiety or depression.”(12) This outer-focus also leads to a change in how people perceive their quality of life. In medical terms, changing how quality of life is viewed is called response shift.(13) “These shifts are purported to lead to a renewed perspectiveon one’s life circumstances, such as one’s illness,stressors, or personal loss,” says Schwartz.(14)
However, she adds, giving beyond your resources is worse for mental health than not giving at all.
Stephanie Brown, evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan, studied elderly people involved in giving. Her study profiled 423 elderly couples for 5 years. She found that people who provided no help, either practical or emotional, were more than twice as likely to die than their altruistic peers. In contrast, those who received help had no longevity benefits. Helpees included friends, relatives and family.(15) The results of other studies on altruism’s effect on mortality are similar. In a study of 2,700 residents of Tecumseh, Michigan, researchers found that men who volunteered in their community were two and a half times less likely to die than non-volunteering men.(16)
These social benefits of volunteering aren’t surprising. Luks, the man who coined the term “helpers high,” says that the pleasure of altruism mostly comes from being with others, noting that donating money doesn’t create the same results. Connecting with others is an aspect of altruism that is healthy on its own.(17) The Stress Institute’s founder, Dr. Kathleen Hall states: “Friendships are strong indicators of mental, physical and spiritual health. Friendship is not a luxury, but is essential to work-life balance and your health. Studies show that isolation decreases immune functioning and increases mortality risk.”(18 )
Dr. Hall mentioned spiritual health as an indicator of overall health, and it is. Altruism can work without spirituality, but spirituality cannot work without altruism. Altruism is involved in every moral religion and spirituality. Its health benefits are a wonderful ripple effect.
Deepening our spiritual and/or religious life includes developing altruism. In Transforming the Mind (2000, Thorsons) His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains that since we are all interconnected it makes sense to shift our focus outwards. “If you shift your focus from yourself to others, extend your concern to others, and cultivate the thought of caring for the well-being of others, then this will have the immediate effect of opening up your life and helping you to reach out,” he writes. The scholarly world echoes His Holiness’s view. Deborah R. Rhode, director for the Stanford Center on Ethics states: “For many individuals, charitable assistance is thus a way to express deeply felt values. Volunteers often attribute their contributions to desires to create a better society and to express religious beliefs or ethical principles such as commitment to civil liberties or racial equality.”(20)
Participating in a meaningful goal, connecting with others, and making a difference are wonderful reasons for giving our time and care. As long as it is a labor of love and not just labor we will absorb the benefits. If we have less pain, stress and disease, it is earned. And if in the process we live longer, it is more time for others, not just ourselves.
1. Preidt, Robert. Love for Others May Bring Rewards. 2004 ScoutNews. IVillage Updated 2007. http://health.ivillage.com/sexualhealth/0,,wbnews_8t313hf2,00.html?ice=iv|wb|news,stoic
2. Sternberg, Esther M. Approaches to defining mechanisms by which altruistic love affects health The Institute for Research on Unlimited love. 2005. http://www.unlimitedloveinstitute.org/publications/pdf/whitepapers/Mechanisms_Altruistic.pdf
3. STRESS AFFECTS IMMUNITY IN WAYS RELATED TO STRESS TYPE AND DURATION, AS SHOWN BY NEARLY 300 STUDIES. American Psychological Association. July 4, 2004. Revised 2007http://www.apa.org/releases/stress_immune.htmlml?ice=iv|wb|news,stoic
4. Approaches to defining mechanisms by which altruistic love affects health. Sternberg, Esther M. The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. Accessed April 11, 2007. http://www.unlimitedloveinstitute.org/publications/pdf/whitepapers/Mechanisms_Altruistic.pdf
5. Jacobs, Gregg D. It is Healthier to Give Than to Receive. TrueStar Health. 2005.
7. Lucs, Allan. Helper’s high: volunteering makes people feel good, physically and emotionallyPsychology Today, Oct, 1988
9. Dunlin, PL, Hill, RD. Relationships between altruistic activity and positive and negative affect among low-income older adult service providers. Aging and Mental Health. 2003 Jul;7(4):294-9.
10. Hall, Kathleen. Stress Reducing Tips. The Stress Institute. 2005. http://www.stressinstitute.com/StressReducing/Stress-Reducing-Tips.aspx
11. Schwartz, C., Psychosomatic Medicine, September/October 2003; vol 65. News release, Health Behavior News Service.
12. Schwartz et al. Altruistic Social Interest Behaviors Are Associated With Better Mental Health Psychosomatic Medicine 65:778-785 (2003) © 2003 American Psychosomatic Society. http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/cgi/content/full/65/5/778
13. Ring et al. Response shift masks the treatment impact on patient reported outcomes (PROs): the example of individual quality of life in edentulous patients. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes 2005, 3:55 http://www.hqlo.com/content/3/1/55
14. Schwartz et al. Altruistic Social Interest Behaviors Are Associated With Better Mental Health Psychosomatic Medicine 65:778-785 (2003) © 2003 American Psychosomatic Society. http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/cgi/content/full/65/5/778
15. Swanbrow, Diane. People who give, live longer, IRS study shows. The University Record Online. November 18,2002. http://www.umich.edu/~urecord/0102/Nov18_02/15.shtml
16. Pain relief: Jacobs, Gregg D. Clinical Applications of the Relaxation Response and Mind-Body Interventions. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Dec 2001, Vol. 7, No. supplement 1: 93-101
17. Lucs, Allan. Helper’s high: volunteering makes people feel good, physically and emotionallyPsychology Today, Oct, 1988.
18. Hall, Kathleen. Stress Reducing Tips. The Stress Institute. 2005. http://www.stressinstitute.com/StressReducing/Stress-Reducing-Tips.aspx
19. Lama, Dalai HH. Altruism. Excerpt from Transforming the Mind. UK:Thorsons. 2000.
20. Rhode, Deborah. Altruism and Hurricane Katrina: Lessons For and From the Public’s Response to Social Needs. Standford Center on Ethics. 2005. http://ethics.stanford.edu/newsletter/December%2005/Altruism.htm
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Galina Pembroke was an internationally published writer specializing in health. She passed away on September 12, 2009 at the young age of 34 after a very brief illness.
- How Good Is Your Karma? (psychologytoday.com)
- James R. Doty, M.D.: The Science of Compassion (huffingtonpost.com)
- Fetzer Institute | Resources | Compassionate Love Research | Compassionate Love Research (womensphilanthropy.typepad.com)
- The more gray matter you have, the more altruistic you are (sciencedaily.com)
- Calm in the Midst of Chaos (embracelifeholisticadventures.com)
- Brain Region Predicts Degree Of Altruism (futurepundit.com)
- Individual differences in altruism explained by brain region involved in empathy (medicalxpress.com)
- Your Brain on Altruism. (veganmyway.tumblr.com)