I have been interviewing people for the podcast and what struck me in the course of my conversations was how many people are dedicating their time to doing good and helping others and how happy these activities often makes them.
There is, of course, significant research into the connection between doing good and feeling good but somehow it is a lot more convincing to hear people talk about their social engagement than reading a scientific publication or even an article in a popular magazine.
However, besides the understanding of the mere fact that doing good makes a lot of people feel good the question remains: why is that so? To answer that one has do dig into the scientific literature. As a trained scientist I used to read these long and – honestly often rather tedious – publications all the time. So I spare you the hassle of doing it yourself and summarize a few of the the highlights of the most interesting “papers” in this section.
Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good
This is the title of a 2005 review paper by Stephen Post (to read the paper click here) published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
The author reviews many years of studies on the effects of altruism and volunteerism on health and well-being. The studies are mostly done on older adults, because the health effects are easier to study in older adults than in younger, generally healthier people (if you want to study whether doing good reduces the risk of heart attacks it is better to study a group of people that suffers from heart attacks more frequently rather than the generally healthy group of 20 something year olds).
Doing Good Makes People Feel Good
The findings in overview form:
- Let’s start on a depressing note: most people in the US/Europe have more material wealth now than their parents had. But that doesn’t make them more happy. In fact, depression rates have dramatically risen.
- A study in the 1990s showed that people who express the most positive emotions live longer and in another study proved that if people feel good “their thinking becomes more creative, integrative, flexible and open to information”
- However, there is a limit: doing good/helping is only associated with well-being if it does not become overwhelming. A care-giver for a seriously ill person will often be overwhelmed and stressed – rather than more happy
- An interesting aspect are the positive health effects of feeling better: feeling better and less stressed (achieved by whatever means, e.g. doing good) counteracts biological effects of aging on a molecular level.
- Studies show profound mental health benefits of doing good, e.g. through volunteering, including less depression, enhanced well-being and happiness. In an interesting turn, a study of older adults revealed that “Giving help was more significantly associated with better mental health than was receiving help”. It seems giving is indeed more blessed than receiving.
- A number of studies from as far back as the 1980s and 1990s show the positive effects of volunteering on longevity. Again, interesting aspects emerge: even a moderate amount of volunteer activities has positive effects which increase with more volunteering, They only reverse when volunteering becomes overwhelming and therefore stressful.
- One study showed that the health benefits of volunteering where stronger than those gained from exercising and regular attendance of religious services and only slightly smaller than the health benefits associated with being a non-smoker.
- As with better diets or more exercise altruism and doing good are factors that increase the odds of mental and physical well-being – but they are not a guarantee of health for each individual..
- How can we explain that doing good makes people feel better and be healthier? The author puts possible reasons forward:
Groups that behave altruistically generally do better than groups that don’t and therefore have an evolutionary advantage over those.
A second argument based on evolutionary biology revolves around the role of grandparents: humans live long past their reproductive years which is fairly unique. Studies have shown that both grandchildren and grandparents benefit from granny and gramps being involved in the upbringing of their grandchildren. Older adults are therefore oriented towards helping behavior. In modern times – where grandkids can live half a world or a continent away – this tendency towards helping behaviour can be expressed in the form of volunteerism.
Helping others has been found to have measurable effects on the body in reducing the level of stress hormones and strengthening the immune-system.
The conclusion is, that doing good, helping behavior, altruism, or volunteerism has a strong correlation with mental and physical well-being, happiness, health and even longevity.