We have a universal need to feel connected to others. Although we can survive in isolation, we cannot thrive without a sense of belonging and membership in some type of community. One of the very best ways to thrive in community is to find ways to reach out and help others.
Many studies have shown that the healthiest and happiest people are commonly the first to offer helping hands, in particular to coworkers and strangers. In her extensive study of happiness, research psychologist Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky (2007) found many reasons altruism is associated with health. It fosters a sense of mastery, which often creates healthy physiological changes. And while we are involved in helping others, we focus less on our own problems.
A large study by Howard Andrews (1990), a psychology professor at Columbia University, yielded a wealth of information that clearly demonstrates the health advantages we experience when we help others. If you’re seeking confirmation that altruism can benefit you, you need look no further than some of these impressive numbers. In his study, 3,296 people who were engaged in volunteer work at more than twenty volunteer organizations filled out a survey. Here are some of Andrews’ findings:
Ninety-five percent of participants said they experienced a sense of physical and emotional wellbeing during and immediately following their helping activities.
Seventy-eight percent said they experienced this again during the following week, even though they were not serving others.
Ninety percent said they believed their health was better than that of others their age.
Those who volunteered weekly throughout the year had a tenfold health advantage over those who volunteered once a year.
Those who got the greatest psychological and emotional benefit also got the greatest health benefit.
A very interesting finding was that volunteers who primarily helped strangers reported the best health, as opposed to those who primarily helped family or friends. The researchers on the Andrews team hypothesized that the reason for this was that those who helped family or friends were often motivated by obligation, guilt, or economic necessity.
The people who helped strangers did so because it helped them feel like they were part of something larger than themselves; they felt an openhearted connection or oneness with other people in general.
The Andrews study also revealed that many who volunteered to help friends or family experienced emotional distress, not feelings of wellbeing, because they were invested in a positive outcome. By contrast, people who helped strangers were less invested in results and helped others primarily because of the joy it brought them.
In another study, research psychologist Stephanie Brown (2003) tracked 423 older couples over five years. She found that couples who reported helping someone without pay, even as infrequently as once a year, were between 40 and 60 percent less likely to die during the five-year period than those who reported not helping anyone. And their service to others was pretty straightforward: volunteering, babysitting for grandchildren, or assisting family members in other ways.
Psychologist Ute Schulz and her team (et al. 2008) discovered that inherent in helping others is a dramatic increase in optimistic attitudes and a sense of meaning and purpose, as well as an increase in feelings of belonging and community. This is clearly a complex topic because many of the ingredients of service to others, such as belonging to a community, social support, optimism, and meaning and purpose—all of which have been identified as components of volunteer work—have been discovered to be independent variables that are strongly associated with better health.
Some researchers have found that when people train themselves to think and behave in ways that center around service to others, they actually develop a more optimistic personality; this is referred to as learned optimism. Psychologist Martin Seligman (2006) found that one common element among such people is the belief that things can change for the better. In fact, altruism scholars Samuel and Pearl Oliner (2004) discovered that altruists generally share a healthy belief system.
The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
In my book In Your Own Hands: New Hope for People Living with Chronic Medical Conditions, I offer countless case studies and scientific data to support not only altruistic behavior, but other evidence-based behaviors proven to improve wellbeing.
Andrews H. Helping and health: The relationship between volunteer activity and health-related outcomes. Advances, 1990;7(1):25-34.
Berkelhammer, L. In Your Own Hands: New Hope for People Living with Chronic Medical Conditions. Jan 2014; Berkeley: WISR Press.
Brown, S. A Boon for Caregivers. Psychology Today, Nov 1, 2003.
Lyubomirsky S. The How of Happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. 2007; New York: Penguin Press
Oliner S. Do Unto Others: Extraordinary Acts of Ordinary People. 2004; New York: Basic Books.
Schulz U, Pischke C, Weidner G, Daubenmier J, Elliot-Eller M, Scherwitz L, Bullinger M, and Ornish D. Social support group attendance is related to blood pressure, health behaviours, and quality of life in the Multicenter Lifestyle Demonstration Project. Psychology Health Medicine, 2008;13(4):423-427.