Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Health & Balance

Font Size

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 volunteer.

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 emotions.

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.

Today on WebMD

Hands breaking pencil in frustration
Quiz
Dark chocolate bars
Slideshow
 
teen napping with book over face
VIDEO
concentration killers
Slideshow
 
man reading sticky notes
Quiz
worried kid
fitArticle
 
Hungover man
Slideshow
Woman opening window
Slideshow
 
Woman yawning
Health Check
Happy and sad faces
Quiz
 
brain food
Slideshow
laughing family
Quiz