Helping Others is Good for You

The website has an interview with Dr. Stephen G. Post, author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving, and president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. (Call me a cynic, but the name “Institute for Research on Unlimited Love” does not instil in me a lot of confidence; it sounds like a hippie farm or a horrific Orwellian government office.)  An excerpt:

IC: What about altruism and longevity?

POST: A remarkable fact is that giving, even in later years, can delay death. The impact of giving is just as significant as not smoking and avoiding obesity. A 2005 study conducted by Alex Harris and Carl Thoresen of Stanford University found that frequent volunteering is strongly linked to later mortality. Called the Longitudinal Study on Aging, it followed more than 7,500 older people for six years. Volunteering was a powerful protector of mental and physical health. Another study, a 1992 survey of older people by Neal Krause of the University of Michigan found that helping others lowers depression. Krause found that, for older men, ten years of volunteering can dramatically slash mortality rates. Another researcher, Doug Oman and his colleagues did a study involving 2,025 older residents of California and found that those who volunteered had a 44 percent reduction in mortality-and those who volunteered for two or more organizations had an astonishing 63 percent lower mortality rate than non-volunteers. If you are an older adult, I have one recommendation: volunteer!

I like that research like this is being done.  As with any study like this you have to be careful not to mistake correlation with causation, but I would guess that these studies at least attempted to control for this, and I would guess that there is SOME element of volunteerism actually causing longer life.  Serving others – performing a use for society – gives a person purpose and a drive to keep living.

Studies like this – and like the marriage study I blogged about a few months ago – have helped me understand a passage from Conjugial Love that confused me the first time I read it.  Conjugial Love n. 130 says,

In brief summary, [wisdom of life] is this: to flee evils because they are harmful to the soul, harmful to the civil state, and harmful to the body, and to do good things because they are of benefit to the soul, to the civil state, and to the body.

The soul and the civil state made sense – the body, not so much.  But more and more research confirms this: things like anger and deceit are harmful to the body, whereas things like doing good are beneficial to the body.  Research like this contributes directly to “wisdom of life” in that it shows just how evil is bad for the body and good is good for it.

That said, it seems like there must be a point where over-volunteering becomes a health risk, rather than a benefit.  I’ve talked to several people who have had doctors tell them that for the sake of their health, they have to stop doing so much.  And I think over-volunteering is often tied with the falsity that we have to do enough good works to merit heaven (Swedenborg has a great description of people in the spiritual world who fell into this fallacy in Arcana Coelestia n. 1110).  I’d like to see research into where that healthy balance is and how people can find it.


About Coleman Glenn

I'm a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister and Patheos blogger (
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3 Responses to Helping Others is Good for You

  1. Alaina says:

    welllll, perhaps the people who volunteer, especially the older ones, can do so because their health and activity level permit it, while the ones who volunteer less may have known or unknown physical/mental maladies that cause symptoms making extra activities more difficult. In other words, instead of the longevity being caused by the volunteering, the volunteering is the outcome of better general health, which is the real cause of the longevity. Perhaps the same physical/mental health factors that prevent folks from volunteering are what’s really behind their shorter life spans.

    Despite my obstinate comment, I do generally think that positive emotions and keeping active in charitable causes can contribute to good health. But I don’t know if a scientific study could ever prove that.

  2. Coleman Glenn says:

    Hi Alaina,

    Yeah, I had exactly the same thought about healthy people being more able to volunteer – that’s what I was thinking in my comment about causation vs. correlation. It seems like something like that would be so obvious to the people doing the studies that they’d have to control for it in some way. That’s what I’m hoping, anyway, but maybe it’s wishful thinking…

    Ah. I just found the abstract for the first paper they cited, and it does sound like they tried to control for other variables. “Multivariate adjustment moderately reduced difference to 44 percent (RH 5 0.56, CI 5 0.35, 0.89), mostly due to physical functioning, health habits, and social support.” I’m still skeptical of the way psychologists and sociologists try to adjust for variables – there are WAY too many variables in human life to really adjust for it right – but I think with such high percentages of differences in mortality it’s reasonable to say that there is probably SOME causation involved.

  3. Sue says:

    Hi, Coleman,
    Very interesting topic. It also gave me a chance to go back and read the marriage study. Pretty cool that our ‘blisters’ in life can heal sooner with a happy relationship with our spouse. I believe that.

    For the over-volunteering, I think others can tend to take advantage of good and helpful people. Which is bad. They are looking for someone to lay their needs on and it is extremely difficult to say ‘no’ if you love them. Good person as patsy. Gotta resist that, I’m finding out.

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