Are you aware of what helping others can do to your health? Most people still seem to be ignorant about the impact such other-oriented behavior can have on their own well-being. Fortunately, several researchers have already stepped in to investigate this important question. A research team from the University of British Columbia gave a group of older participants with high blood pressure money to spend. On three consecutive weeks they were each given $40. Half the participants were instructed to spend the money on themselves; the rest were asked to spend it on someone else—buy a gift for a friend, donate to a charity or otherwise benefit others with the money.
A few weeks afterward the researchers measured the blood pressure of both groups. It turned out the blood pressure (systolic and diastolic) of those participants who had spent money on others had significantly decreased as compared with the subjects who spent the money on themselves. Moreover, the decrease in blood pressure was similar in size to the effect of starting high-frequency exercise or a healthier diet.
Aiding others can even help you live longer. A study of older adults compared receiving social support and giving it as predictors of mortality over a period of five years. Whereas it would be intuitive to think receiving such support would be good for oneself, the results showed it was giving social support that predicted longevity: Those who provided instrumental support to friends, relatives and neighbors as well as those who provided emotional support to their spouses were more likely to be alive at the end of the study period compared with less pro-social participants. These results held true even when the researchers controlled for various demographic factors such as health, mental health, personality and marital status.
More than 10 studies have also demonstrated regular voluntary work predicts longevity. Helping behavior can even buffer against the negative effect that stress typically has on mortality: Among 846 participants around Detroit, stressful events predicted subsequent mortality among people who did not provide help to others in the past year but not among those who did.
Also, being the caregiver of an ailing loved one is often assumed to be a burden for the former. Although the stress and sorrow associated with seeing your spouse fade away is clearly a heavy burden, the active help provided to the spouse might still have a positive effect on caregiver longevity. A national study of over 3,000 elderly married individuals showed those who spent at least 14 hours a week providing active care to their spouses actually lived longer, when controlled for demographic and health variables.
And as if longevity and better health would not be enough, providing support for others also tends to make the helper happier. In one of my own studies I invited a group of students to play a simple game on a computer where they had to match words with their synonyms. Half of the participants just played the game whereas the others were told that for every answer they get right, a small donation is made to the United Nations World Food Programme to help end hunger. After playing, this latter group experienced more positive emotions and reported finding the game more meaningful.
Similarly, Lara Aknin from Simon Fraser University has shown that when half the people are given $5 to spend on themselves and the rest $5 to spend on others, the latter group is happier afterward. And this is not only true in her home country Canada but across the world from Uganda and South Africa to India (pdf). She even went to a small-scale, isolated rural village on the island of Vanuatu in the Pacific. Even there purchasing goods for others led to more positive emotions than purchasing them for oneself. There thus seems to be something rooted in our very human nature that makes helping feel good across cultures. This is corroborated by neurological studies that have confirmed charitable donations indeed activate the reward centers of the brain.
A dose of good deeds toward others, then, can thus be a good medicine for improving one’s physical and mental health.
Of course, even here too much of a good thing can be detrimental. If people only concentrate on the well-being of others, they can ignore their own needs. There are too many tragic stories of people sacrificing their own happiness in order to serve their families or some grand global cause. Helping is good but it should be strategic and self-determined, as Adam Grant, an expert on pro-social giving at The Wharton School, has emphasized: “There’s a big difference between pleasing people and helping them.” One should choose when and how to help, instead of being pushed to assist whomever happens to ask.
Indeed, a number of experiments have shown that whereas autonomously motivated helping increases a helper’s well-being, this is not true when one is coerced or forced to benefit others. By learning to say no, one can concentrate on those ways of helping where one’s interests and talents are put to best use, and where one can get the biggest impact for one’s investment.
So don’t believe the false dichotomy between selfishness and sacrificing oneself for others. A man is no island. As social beings, we humans encompass both the desire to realize ourselves and the desire to be a meaningful part of a bigger whole. Both are an important part of a meaningful existence, as I’ve tried to show in my research. That’s why the extremes—only look out for number one and only look out for others—are detrimental for well-being. In both cases part of our humanity is suffocated. Finding a balance is key. But in our era of individualism and unabashed self-interest reaching such balance often means a commitment to consciously start looking for the best ways to help those around you.