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The Science of Good Deeds

The 'helper's high' could help you live a longer, healthier life.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

It's a classic tale, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge -- the epitome of selfishness, the quintessential mean-spirited, miserly, narcissistic old man. Yet as Scrooge discovers the joy of good deeds, he blooms with the "helper's high" - and his spirit is reborn. And a merrier man had never been seen, as the story goes.

In the last few years, researchers have looked at the so-called helper's high and its effects on the human body. Scientists are searching to understand just how altruism -- the wish to perform good deeds -- affects our health, even our longevity.

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Acts of heroism are one form of altruism -- as we saw on 9/11, when firemen rushed into the World Trade Center. Many firemen, chaplains, and citizens joined the rescue and recovery effort, working grueling 12-hour shifts.

In everyday life, countless people choose to give up free time to volunteer -- whether it's serving at soup kitchens, cleaning up litter, taking elderly people to the grocery store, or helping a next-door neighbor.

What prompts a human being to act heroically? What makes us perform good deeds? When we act on behalf of other people, research shows that they feel greater comfort, less stress. But what about the do-gooder's physiology -- how is it affected? Can doing good make us healthier, as a growing number of scientists now believe? Can it even, as studies suggest, help us live longer?

This is the focus of 50 scientific studies funded through The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, headed by Stephen G. Post, PhD, a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. It is a comprehensive investigation of altruism, aka benevolence, compassion, generosity, and kindness.

The Innate Need to Do Good

It's no surprise that, when we're on the receiving end of love, we reap a benefit. "There are ample studies showing that when people receive generosity and compassion, there is a positive effect on their health and well-being," Post tells WebMD.

Examples: "When a compassionate physician creates a safe haven for the ill patient, the patient experiences relief from stress," he explains. "One study showed that when men felt loved by their wives, they were less likely to experience chest pain that might signal a heart attack."

Only in recent years have researchers explored the scientific underpinnings of the notion that "doing good" is indeed a good thing -- and precisely why it is good for us. Indeed, many scientific disciplines -- evolution, genetics, human development, neurology, social science, and positive psychology -- are at the heart of this investigation, says Post.

Linking Kindness and Health

In a paper published earlier this year, Post describes the biological underpinnings of stress -- and how altruism can be the antidote. This connection was discovered inadvertently in 1956, when a team of Cornell University researchers began following 427 married women with children. They assumed that the housewives with more children would be under greater stress and die earlier than women with few children.

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