The Science of Good Deeds
The 'helper's high' could help you live a longer, healthier life.
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
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."