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The Science of Good Deeds

The 'helper's high' could help you live a longer, healthier life.
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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.

"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."

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