Altruism and wellbeing
Altruism can be good for your wellbeing. It is defined as caring about other people and acting in someone else’s interest. For example, we may be acting altruistically and helping others by offering our seat to a pregnant woman or elderly person on a bus or volunteering in our community.
Many psychologists believe that we may be hard-wired for empathy, since cooperative behaviour allowed our ancestors to survive under harsh conditions. Many of us agree that when we make the effort to give without expectations of reciprocity, we often do receive something in return, we may feel fulfilled and energized by these acts of giving.3
There are many different ways that you can help others as part of your everyday life. Carrying out good deeds doesn’t need to take a lot of time or even cost money. Small changes can make a big difference.
What are the health benefits of helping others?
Many of us feel too stressed and busy to think about helping others, or we say we will do good deeds and volunteer when we have more time. However evidence shows that helping others is actually beneficial for your own mental health as can improve your wellbeing.4,5 Some of the benefits associated with helping others are:
It promotes positive physiological changes in the brain associated with happiness
Giving to and helping other people releases endorphins which then activate parts of our brain that are associated with trust, pleasure and social connection. Being altruistic and spending money on others leads to greater levels of happiness compared to when you spend money on yourself. This happiness then increases the chance that we will be altruistic and do good deeds in the future, ultimately creating a positive feedback loop of generosity and happiness. 6
It brings a sense of belonging and reduces isolation
Being a part of a social network leads to feelings of belonging and being altruistic can reduce stress levels. By helping others and focusing on others oftentimes we receive good feelings back.7
It helps to keep things in perspective
Helping people in need, especially those who are less fortunate than yourself, or volunteering can provide a sense of perspective and can make one realise how lucky they are, enabling one to stop focusing on what they feel may be missing in their life- this helps one achieve a more positive outlook on the things that may be causing you stress. 8
It reduces stress and improves our health
Evidence suggests that helping others can boost our health. Emotions which are related to helping people such as compassion may help stabilise the immune system against immunosuppressing effects of stress. Altruistic acts may also decrease pain by stimulating the brain to release endorphins, which are powerful natural painkillers. 9
It helps reduce negative feelings
People who give to others have better life adjustment overall and tend to see life as more meaningful. Altruism is associated with better marital relationships, a decreased sense of hopelessness, less depression, increased physical health, and enhanced self-esteem. Acts of altruism may also neutralise negative emotions that affect immune, endocrine and cardiovascular function.10
It can help us live longer
Helping people may increase how long we live. Studies on older people show that those who give support to others live longer than those who don’t. This included support to a friend, relative, neighbour and emotional support to their spouse. 11,12
- 1Greater Good. What is Altruism?. Available at http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/altruism/definition [ accessed August 2015]
- 2Mental Health Foundation (2012). Doing Good Altruism and wellbeing in an age of austerity. Available at http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/content/assets/PDF/publications/Doing-good-report1.pdf?view=Standard [accessed November 2015]
- 3Psychology Today. Altruism. Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/altruism [accessed August 2015]
- 4Schwartz CE, Keyl PM, Marcum JP, Bode R. (2009). Helping others shows differential benefits on health and well-being for male and female teens. Journal of Happiness Studies, 10(4), 431-448
- 5Schwartz C, Meisenhelder JB, Ma Y, Reed G. (2003). Altruistic social interest behaviors are associated with better mental health. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(5), 778-785.
- 6Project Happiness. 7 Happiness Habits Backed by Science. Available at http://www.projecthappiness.org/science-of-happiness/ [accessed August 2015]
- 7MotherNature. Altruism. Available at http://www.mothernature.com/archive/centers/detail.cfm?id=72&term=Antioxidant [accessed August 2015]
- 8About Health. Benefits of Altruism. Available at http://stress.about.com/od/lowstresslifestyle/a/altruism.htm [accessed August 2015]
- 9Hafen BQ, Karren KJ, Frandsen KJ, Smith NL. (1996). Mind/body health: The effects of attitudes, emotions and relationships. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- 10Mental Help. Socialization and Altruistic Acts as Stress Relief. Available at https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/socialization-and-altruistic-acts-as-stress-relief/ [accessed August 2015]
- 11Brown SL, Smith DM, Schulz R, Kabeto MU, Ubel PA, Poulin M, Yi J, Kim C, Lange KM. (2009). Caregiver behaviour is associated with decreased mortality risk. Psychological Science. 20(4), 488-494
- 12Brown SL, Nesse RM, Vinokur AD, Smith DM. (2003). Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it. Results from a prospective study of mortality. Psychological Science. 14(4), 320-327