In the iconic Charles Dickens novella, “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge probably never thought of how his turn to generosity of spirit might have saved his life. Or maybe, in the abstract, he did.
Either way, more than 170 years after the book’s publication, the story remains popular and has never gone out of print. Maybe the next edition could contain footnotes on the health benefits of giving a Christmas goose to a poor family.
Science now says that giving and generosity is good for your health and well-being.
“Though economists have long argued the contrary, a growing body of evidence suggests that, at our core, both animals and human beings have… a “compassionate instinct,” says Emma Seppala, PhD, associate director of The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University Medical School.
“In other words, compassion is a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival.”
Research does suggest that if you connect with others – which can be as simple as cultivating and maintaining friendships that last – you have better mental and physical health, heal faster, and live longer.
One study found that you are happy when living a life of positive conscious decisions and that, in turn, rewards you with low levels of the cellular inflammation that puts many diseases in motion, including cancer.
Conversely, cellular inflammation is higher in people who have a lot of stress in their lives. Stress and generosity usually don’t go together.
In one chapter of a book on health and social relationships, the authors review several studies on “the effects of giving on givers.” They conclude that volunteers report more “positive affect,” life satisfaction, psychological well-being, and less depression compared to non-volunteers.
In terms of physical health, correlational studies have found that if you have higher empathy, which leads to social support of others, you also tend to indulge in fewer risky health behaviors, such as drinking and smoking.
The chapter authors note that even when participants in an experiment were just shown a film clip of an “extremely compassionate exemplar” (Mother Teresa) they had an increased level of immune system function compared to a control film clip.
That effect was even stronger in people who already had a strong desire to connect with others.
“Philosophers, religious leaders, mystics and poets have for millennia said, in various oft-quoted phrases, that it is good to be good to others,” writes Stephen G. Post, PhD, professor and director, Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University.
“We can say with certainty that it is good to be good. Not only ancient wisdom, but also science says it is so.”
Post also notes that the science on health and generosity is so strong, that giving is now used as “helper therapy” in many 12-step recovery programs that work to improve both mental and physical health.
Various studies have found that former cardiac patients who visit current cardiac patients have reduced levels of despair and depression. People with chronic pain have lower pain intensity and less disability, and people with AIDS became long-term survivors when they reached out to others with an HIV diagnosis.
Starting in 1956, 427 wives and mothers from upstate New York were followed for 30 years by researchers at Cornell University.
The researchers found that no matter their life circumstances, women who volunteered to help other people at least once a week lived longer and were physically healthier, even after their health beforehand was considered.
In the end – as in life – the health benefits may come down to reducing stress and the illness it can generate. A study found that when you deal with stressful situations, you were less likely to die if you provided help in the previous year as opposed to those who didn’t.
“Our findings… go beyond past analyses to indicate that the health benefits of helping behavior derive specifically from stress-buffering processes,” said Michael J. Poulin, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo.
“This finding provides important guidance for understanding why helping behavior specifically may promote health, and potentially for how social processes in general may influence health.”
Scrooge needed three visits from terrifying ghosts and his dead business partner before he learned the error of his ways. If you don’t believe in ghosts, just take science’s word for it.
December 24, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN