Helping Others Helps Your Own Mind

Altruism Offers Mental Health Benefits

Oct. 21, 2003 -- People who help others may be rewarded with better mental health.

A new study of churchgoers shows that people who offer love, caring, and support to others have better mental health than those who only receive help from others.

Researchers say the findings suggest that altruism offers mental-health benefits that can help counter the negative effects of stressful life events.

"The act of giving to someone else may have mental-health benefits because the very nature of focusing outside the self counters the self-focused nature of anxiety or depression," write researcher Carolyn Schwartz, ScD, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and colleagues.

Helping Others Helps Yourself

In the study, researchers mailed questionnaires to more than 2,000 Presbyterian Church members. The members were asked how often they helped others by making others feel loved and cared for and how often they listened to others in the congregation. They were also asked how often they received this type of attention.

The participants also answered questions about their mental and physical health. The results appear in the September/October issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

Overall, researchers say the respondents were in good mental and physical health to start with and experienced only normal levels of stress and anxiety.

They didn't find any link between physical health and giving and receiving help. They did find that giving help was a better predictor of mental health than receiving help.

But researchers say it is also possible to give too much.

"Although our findings suggest that people who help others experience better mental health, our findings also suggest that giving beyond one's own resources is associated with worse reported mental health," write the researchers.

In addition, the study showed that church leaders, older individuals, women and those who took satisfaction from prayer were more likely to be altruistic helpers than receivers of help.

Researchers say people who are already functioning well psychologically may also be better able to help others.

SOURCES: Schwartz, C., Psychosomatic Medicine, September/October 2003; vol 65. News release, Health Behavior News Service.