Sunday, December 20, 2009

Healthy Altruism

The results of numerous scientific studies have determined what many people already suspect: Altruism is good for your health. The New York Times cited several research studies indicating that giving to others can result in positive benefits for the giver; namely, pain and stress reduction, diminished heart disease, and even longer life. [1] One study found that “High volunteers … had 63 percent lower mortality than nonvolunteers”. Interestingly, the researchers noted that religious activity increased the positive effect: “Unexpectedly, volunteering was slightly more protective for those with high religious involvement and perceived social support.” [2] Another study by Boston College researchers found that training and volunteering by peers reduced chronic pain and depression. The authors noted that two themes emerged from the study: “making a connection” and “a sense of purpose.” [3] Living a purposeful, unselfish life appears to confer physiological rewards, not to mention spiritual and emotional benefits.

Bible students are not surprised by these findings:
“How blessed is he who considers the helpless; the Lord will deliver him in a day of trouble. The Lord will protect him and keep him alive … The Lord will sustain him upon his sickbed; in his illness, you restore him to health.” (Psalm 41:1-3)
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen … Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him … Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear”. (Isaiah 58:6-8, NIV) The Hebrew word translated in Isaiah 58:8 as “healing” is arukah, which means “to make long, live long. Healing, health, with the sense of restoring to soundness”. [4]

A survey of 1,500 women by the Institute for the Advancement of Health found that those who frequently helped others described a somatic experience similar to that felt after vigorous exercise or meditation. The researchers noted that altruistic contact with others may release endorphins which counter the body’s reaction to stress. To experience the effect, contact with others must be direct and voluntary. The author designated this phenomenon as the “helper’s high”. [5]

ABC News program 20/20 conducted a study in which Craigslist was used to recruit people who were currently not engaged in volunteerism. After only one week of helping those less fortunate, a significant psychological effect was noticed in all volunteers. In fact, this “helper’s high” has been observed on MRI brain scans that show increased activity in dopaminergic receptors, those normally associated with positive feelings, according to National Institutes of Health neuroscientist Jordan Grafman. He reported, “Those brain structures that are activated when you get a reward are the same ones that are activated when you give. In fact, they're activated more.” [6]

Jesus taught us to give to those less fortunate: “But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you”. (Luke 14:13-14) Seems to be good advice for all.

[1] Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times, “In Month of Giving, a Healthy Reward”, published 30 Nov 2009.
[2] Doug Oman, Carl E. Thoresen, and Kay Mcmahon, “Volunteerism and Mortality among the Community-dwelling Elderly”, Journal of Health Psychology, Vol. 4, No. 3, 301-316, 1999.
[3] Paul Arnstein RN, PhD, APRN, BC , Michelle Vidal RN, MS, Carol Wells-Federman MS, MEd, APRN, BC, Betty Morgan RN, PhD, and Margaret Caudill MD, PhD, “From chronic pain patient to peer: Benefits and risks of volunteering”, Pain Management Nursing, Volume 3, Issue 3, September 2002, Pages 94-103.
[4] Spiros Zodhiates, Executive Editor, The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible, AMG Publishers, Chattanooga, TN: 1996, p. 1505.
[5] Allan Luks, “Helper's High: Volunteering Makes People Feel Good, Physically and Emotionally” Psychology Today, October 1988.