A Review of Scientific Evidence Supporting
the Link Between Altruism and Health
by Barbara Velazquez, Ph.D.
Scientific research has found convincing evidence supporting findings that not only does being kind help make the world a better place, it also offers significant health benefits, both physically and mentally.
Allan Luks, former executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of Health and executive director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of New York City, documented the findings of his study on kindness in his book, “The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others.”
Luks' study involved a survey of more than 3,000 volunteers of all ages, at 20 organizations throughout the country. After analyzing the results of the survey, in which he asked volunteers about their feelings while performing a kind act, he concluded that a clear cause-and-effect relationship existed between helping and good health. Below are some of Luk's significant findings.
•Helping contributes to the maintenance of good health, and it can decrease the effect of diseases and disorders serious and minor, psychological and physical. •A rush of euphoria, followed by a longer period of calm, after performing a kind act, often referred to as a “helper’s high,” involving physical sensations and the release of endorphins. Once “helper’s high” subsides, it is then followed by an even longer period of an increased sense of well-being. •Performing kind acts reverses feelings of depression, provides a sense of social connection. It also reduces feelings of hostility and isolation that can cause such conditions as stress, overeating, and ulcers. For some, the reduction in stress may decrease the constriction within the lungs that leads to asthma attacks. •Helping can enhance feelings of joyfulness, emotional resilience, and vigor. •A decrease in both the intensity and the awareness of physical pain can occur. •A decreased incidence of negative attitudes, such as chronic hostility. •The health benefits and sense of well-being return for hours or even days whenever the helping act is remembered. •An enhanced sense of self-worth, greater happiness, and optimism, as well as a reduction in feelings of helplessness and depression, can be achieved. •The sense of an “affinitive connection” that occurs when helping leads to positive emotions that can strengthen the immune system. • The practice of caring for strangers results in immense immune system and healing benefits.
In his book, the “Power of Intention”, Dr. Wayne Dyer cites scientific studies which conclude that kindness both increases levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin and strengthens our immune systems. Serotonin makes us feel light, happy, and at ease and anti-depressants work by increasing the production of this neurotransmitter. Research has shown that a single act of kindness increases the levels of serotonin in the recipient of the kindness and in the one being kind. Furthermore, those who witness the act of kindness are affected in the same manner.
Similar findings were obtained in a study conducted by researchers from the University of California, San Diego and Harvard and published in the March 8 early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This study concluded that a single act of kindness can spread between individuals and across time. Cooperative behavior spreads through three degrees of separation i.e. from person a to person b, from person b to person c and from person c to person d. The effects persist over time as well. The study also noted that uncooperative behavior can also spread and persist.
A study conducted by researchers at University of California, Los Angeles, and University of Cambridge and University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom also found that kindness is contagious. The study, hailed as the first of its kind to systematically document this tendency in human nature, concluded that when we see someone help another it gives us a good feeling, which in turn causes us to do something altruistic as well.
Another health related result of kindness is the production of oxytocin. We produce this hormone when we bond with others. Having quality relationships increases its levels. And research has shown that acts of kindness also help us to bond with others. D. Jezova, and M. Ondrejcakova of the Institute of Experimental Endocrinology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava, Slovakia have shown that oxytocin has a powerful effect on free radical and inflammation levels. These are two of the critical culprits in coronary artery disease. Excess inflammation, for instance, leads to a buildup of arterial plaque that can result in a heart attack.
More evidence comes out of a ten-year study of the physical, health and social activities of 2700 men in Tecumseh, Michigan. This study found that those who did regular volunteer work had death rates two and one-half times lower than those who didn’t volunteer. Other studies have indicated that helping is associated with boosted immune functioning, fewer colds and headaches, and relief from pain and insomnia. Harvard Medical School researchers who followed Harvard graduates for 40 years identified altruism as one of the major qualities that helped graduates cope with the stress of life. In recent studies University of Massachusetts Medical School investigators found that improved mental health was more closely linked to giving help than to receiving.
Lastly, “Positive Action” is a program that teaches and reinforces the philosophy that people feel good about themselves when they engage in positive actions. The program teaches positive actions for the physical, intellectual, social, and emotional areas of the self. A study by Oregon State University researchers found that “Positive Action” when taught to elementary school children, can improve academic test scores as much as 10% on national standardized math and reading tests.
Other key findings included:
21% improvement on state reading tests 51% improvement on state math tests 70% fewer suspensions 15% less absenteeism
In conclusion, the cumulative results scientific studies strongly suggest that widespread and persistent acts of kindness and altruism can significantly improve both physical and mental health. The impact of an entire town mobilizing to engage in kindness has the potential to have an exponential effect on well being and perceived mental health. It would be exciting to see the results of such an “experiment”.