The fullest meaning of altruism is doing something for someone other than oneself without expecting anything in return. Since the act of giving is without expectation, the benefits of altruism to the giver may be surprising.
The old saying, “It's better to give than to receive,” is especially true when it comes to wellness. One definition of altruism is “a concern for someone's welfare over your own.” This could range from volunteering at an animal shelter, giving money to your favorite charity, or even being a bone marrow donor to someone you hardly know. Altruistic giving is selfless without expectation of gain. Research shows that acting altruistically can improve your mental and physical health.
Improvements to Mental Health
Allen Luks described the "helper's high" in a survey of volunteers, many of which reported positive sensations of increased energy, warmth, and calm associated with helping others. There is a release of natural endorphins in our body associated with positive emotion when we feel we're doing something good. This endorphin release is also similar to the feeling people get from exercise.
Neuroscience research reveals that the brain's reward center becomes active when we donate money. Likewise, these same areas of the emotional brain react to sex, food, drugs, and receiving money. This reward of good feeling brain chemicals encourages repeat behavior such as volunteering or giving money to an uplifting cause.
Switching the focus to someone else puts your problems into perspective. For example, studies show that people with cancer or persistent pain giving guidance to other people with similar issues reduce the giver's pain, improves their mood, and increases their functional ability.
Research shows that all things being equal, you feel a greater sense of happiness when you spend money on other people rather than spending money on yourself. For example, one study gave people $25 to spend over five days either on themselves or on someone else. Then, at the end of each day, they filled out a survey on their level of happiness and mood. People who spent money on themselves had a decrease in happiness during the five days of this study, whereas people who spent money on others had a lasting sense of happiness.
Happiness and the Quarter Study
In March of 2021, researcher Milla Titova published a study in the Journal of Positive Psychology that found the positive effect of giving is present when kindness is extended to strangers, not just friends or family. People in the study were given two quarters for filling out surveys about their well-being. Some were given the quarters to keep for themselves and others were told to use the money to put in someone else’s parking meter. People who filled other's parking meters were significantly happier than people who kept the quarters for themselves.
Not only does giving activate our rewards centers giving us a positive feeling, other research showed that generosity will reduce the activity in the emotional fear center of our brain, the amygdala.
Improvements to Physical Health
Studies have found that volunteers tend to live longer and often have better physical health than non-volunteers.
The social connection related to altruism can be an antidote to stress. One study published by the National Institutes of Health looked at people who assisted friends and family members by providing care for children, running errands, and helping with housework. They monitored the group over the next five years looking at their stress levels. Individuals that helped others lived longer and had fewer health effects from stressful events.
An interesting study published by The American Psychological Association focused on older adults and compared two groups: one who was asked to spend money on others, and another group who was assigned to spend money on themselves. They looked at these groups after three weeks and two years later, and in both situations the more money people spent on others, the lower their blood pressure.
The health benefits of giving are evident even when controlled for demographic factors in the research subjects such as their level of activity, overall health status and smoking history.
Volunteers Live Longer
The positive effect of volunteering on health is so profound that one article is entitled, "Is volunteering a public health intervention?" In other words, could the act of volunteering be prescribed as a lifestyle modification to promote public health? Multiple studies show a lower risk of death and improved life satisfaction in response to volunteering.
Even Acts of Kindness Need to be Kept in Balance
Too much of a good thing can be problematic. There is a need for moderation, even in altruism, to avoid burnout. Most health benefits come from a moderate degree of volunteering, which may be related to an increased sense of connection and increased physical activity. Some studies have found that volunteering has led to a reduced incidence of high blood pressure and hip fractures in seniors who volunteer compared to non-volunteers of the same age. "Taken together, these results suggest that volunteering is associated with health improvements and increased physical activity -- changes that one would expect to offer protection against a variety of health conditions," said researcher Nicole Anderson whose study was published by Interim HealthCare.
The Gift That Keeps on Giving
Generosity, specifically of your time, is a potential cure for another modern day health concern: loneliness. Altruism leads to a feeling of social connection. Author and researcher John Cacioppo wrote the book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. He recommends volunteering as one step in lessening loneliness in that when volunteering, people are most likely going to accept you with pro-social behavior. Charity is contagious as shown in another study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that show one's own generosity spreads to people around you with at least two to three degrees of separation, meaning that your generosity affects another person whose generosity effects another person whose generosity then effects a third person. So it really is the gift that keeps on giving, and kindness is contagious.
Theresa Oswald, M.D., the founder and president of Knowledge as Medicine, has practiced holistic medicine for over 25 years. She received her Doctorate of Medicine from The Medical College of Wisconsin and completed her residency training at The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago at Northwestern University. Dr. Oswald is Board Certified with the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and the American Board of Integrative Medicine. She has been board certified in Integrative Medicine for over 10 years. Her career as a physiatrist has been spent honing ways to optimize her patient’s function in all areas of health: body, mind and spirit. Her experience includes the delivery of medicine in the most modern hospital settings as well as in the most simple, rural settings in developing countries.