Research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology [mind/body/medicine] demonstrates the powerful health benefits, physically and mentally, of altruistic behavior. People who are altruistic enjoy better well-being, happiness, health, and longevity. Altruistic behavior is defined as the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. Performing an act of kindness for someone, known or unknown, without any thought of personal benefit or acknowledgement.
Impact on Mental Health: the positive feelings and energy that result from altruistic behavior contribute to overall mental health. By shifting focus from one’s self-focused nature of anxiety or depression by helping someone else in need leads to a change in perception of one’s health and quality of life, and a decrease in stress. Interestingly, the people that receive the service/help do not receive the same benefit as those that give it.
Improved Immune Function: Harvard psychologists studied how altruistic thoughts influence the quality of germ-fighting substances in saliva. Volunteers were shown a gentle film on gardening; the second film was a Nazi war documentary; the third was a documentary about Mother Teresa the Nobel Prize-winning nun ministering to the poor, the lepers, and orphans of India. There was no change in the immune fighting properties in the saliva of the volunteers watching the first two movies. However, by merely watching the altruistic service of Mother Teresa, an actual physical change in immune function was observed – one that could possibly help them stay healthier.
Stress Reduction: the American Psychological Association has long asserted that stress impacts the body’s ability to fight infection, and altruistic love apparently aids in the healing process by decreasing or eliminating the effects of stress. Dr. Kathleen Hall, a founder of The Stress Institute, says that “altruism creates a physiological response that makes people feel stronger and more energetic and that counters harmful effects of stress.” There is evidence to suggest that altruistic love may activate certain aspects of the relaxation response – allowing heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and hormone levels to return to normal. Altruism can help combat the effects of stress by preventing nervous system “overload.”
Pain Relief: research has shown that altruistic action stimulates the brain to release endorphins, powerful natural painkillers that make us feel better. It has been shown that the “good feeling” people get by an act of altruism are so powerful that even remembering an altruistic act from the past can trigger that same “good feeling” [pain-killing endorphin release] in the present. [A nod to quantum mechanics — there is no past, present, future – it’s all happening Now.]
The “Helper’s High”: similar in nature to the “runner’s high” experienced during exercising. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that volunteerism helps improve mood and gives a “high”. Serving and helping others may cause the release of endorphins. A secondary benefit of the healthy-helper syndrome showed that volunteers demonstrated a longer lasting sense of calm and heightened emotional well-being. Volunteers reported improvement in their own physical ills, including fewer arthritis pains, lupus symptoms, asthma attacks, migraine headaches, colds and flu.
Improved Longevity: altruism can actually help you live longer. An eight-year study in Israel of people seventy-five and older showed that those that volunteered enjoyed a reduction of one-third the mortality rate of those that did not volunteer. A study of seventy-nine long-term survivors of AIDS survived twice as long because they participated in volunteer activities.
Being “in service” to someone in need can be a life changing, and life enhancing, experience.