The Science of Good Deeds
The 'helper's high' could help you live a longer, healthier life.
Linking Kindness and Health continued...
"Surprisingly, they found that numbers of children, education, class,
and work status did not affect longevity," writes Post. After following
these women for 30 years, researchers found that 52% of those who did not
volunteer had experienced a major illness -- compared with 36% who did
Two large studies found that older adults who volunteered reaped benefits in
their health and well-being. Those who volunteered were living longer than
nonvolunteers. Another large study found a 44% reduction in early death among
those who volunteered a lot -- a greater effect than exercising four times a
week, Post reports.
In the 1990s, one famous study examined personal essays written by nuns in
the 1930s. Researchers found that nuns who expressed the most positive emotions
were living about 10 years longer than those who expressed the fewest such
The Science of Altruism
When we engage in good deeds, we reduce our own stress -- including the
physiological changes that occur when we're stressed. During this stress
response, hormones like cortisol are released, and our heart and breathing
rates increase -- the "fight or flight" response.
If this stress response remains "turned on" for an extended period,
the immune and cardiovascular systems are adversely affected -- weakening the
body's defenses, making it more susceptible to abnormal cellular changes, Post
explains. These changes can ultimately lead to a downward spiral -- abnormal
cellular changes that cause premature aging.
"Studies of telomeres -- the end-caps of our genes -- show that
long-term stress can shorten those end-caps, and shortened end-caps are linked
with early death," he tells WebMD. "These studies indicate that we're
dealing with something that's extremely powerful. Ultimately, the process of
cultivating a positive emotional state through pro-social behaviors -- being
generous -- may lengthen your life."
Altruistic emotions -- the "helper's high" -- seem to gain dominance
over the stress response, Post explains. The actual physiological responses of
the helper's high have not yet been scientifically studied. However, a few
small studies point to lowered stress response and improved immunity (higher
levels of protective antibodies) when one is feeling empathy and love.
In one study, older adults who volunteered to give massage to infants had
lowered stress hormones. In another study, students were simply asked to watch
a film of Mother Teresa's work with the poor in Calcutta. They had significant
increases in protective antibodies associated with improved immunity -- and
antibody levels remained high for an hour afterward. Students who watched a
more neutral film didn't have changes in antibody levels. "Thus, 'dwelling
on love' strengthened the immune system," writes Post.
Compassion in the Brain
There's evidence in brain studies of a "compassion-altruism axis,"
Post tells WebMD. Utilizing functional MRI scans, scientists have identified
specific regions of the brain that are very active during deeply empathic and
compassionate emotions, he explains. A new mother's brain -- specifically, the
prefrontal lobe -- becomes very active when she looks at a picture of her own
baby, compared to other babies' pictures.