Compassion for others, specifically demonstrated through empathy and altruism, has physical and mental health benefits for the giver.
By Galina Pembroke
According to a 2004 University of Chicago survey of over 1300 people, women are more likely than men to feel empathy, and feelings of empathy and altruism are unrelated to financial status. These finding may not surprise you. What is surprising is that these feelings have measurable benefits – not only for the receiver but for the giver.
Compassion Increases Immunity by Decreasing Stress
Cleveland, Ohio’s The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love studies the benefits of altruism, which they define as “unselfish benevolent love.” Recently, Esther M. Sternberg, a research professor who authored The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, wrote a paper for The Institute. In it she examined mechanisms by which altruistic love affects health, concluding that caring may suppress disease activity and activate immune response.
Sternberg says that altruistic love may heal by decreasing or stopping stress. This is important. The stress-state produces terrible effects through both mind and body. The American Psychological Association states that “psychologists have long known that stress impacts our ability to fight infection.” During stress the brain releases unhealthy chemicals and hormones. This affects our immune cell’s operation, reducing their ability to fight infection and inflammation.
Improved immunity is only the first benefit of altruism. Sternberg says that “it is also possible that altruistic love might activate certain aspects of the ‘relaxation response’ in addition to blocking aspects of the stress response.” The relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response. The stress response causes an increase in heart rate, stress hormone, and blood pressure while slowing digestion. In contrast, the relaxation response allows our heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and hormonal levels to return to normal.
Compassion and Pain Relief
The relaxation from altruistic acts also helps the body stop pain. Allan Luks, the executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of Health, coined the expression “helper’s high.” This feeling mirrors the calm after a good workout. In the 1980s, while working as executive director for New York’s Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Luks surveyed thousands of volunteers about their experiences. From the results he theorized that helping people creates pain-killing endorphins.
Since then, multiple studies have supported Luk’s hypothesis. One, published in 1998, found that this helper’s high is healing. From two surveys with a total of 1,746 participants, the Institute for the Advancement of Health concluded that helping-induced relaxation was linked to pain relief, particularly in stress-related disorders. These include lupus, multiple sclerosis, voice loss, and headaches.
Helping Produces Good Feelings
The same surveys revealed that helping produces pleasant feelings and sensations. A majority of participants described these as physical and locatable. Half of the people writing about their experience described feeling high, warm, and an increase in energy. This was most intense during touching or listening to someone. Remarkably, a majority of the study participants said these feelings would reoccur, although muted, when they remembered helping.
Many other studies have similar conclusions. A 2003 New Zealand study of 115 low-income older adults found that altruistic activity – in this case volunteering with a federally subsidized delivery program – predicted a positive mood. The effects of altruism on a happy mood are well recognized throughout the medical world. Dr. Kathleen Hall, a world renowned expert in stress and founder of The Stress Institute, says that “altruism creates a physiological responses or ‘helper’s high’ that makes people feel stronger and more energetic and counters harmful effects of stress.”
Overall Mental Health
The combination of positive feelings and increased energy are conducive to overall mental health. This isn’t just self-evident; it’s been studied. A 2003 study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that churchgoers who providing compassion, love, caring, and support to others had better mental health than those who receiving their care. Study researcher Carolyn Schwartz, ScD of the University of Massachusetts Medical School explained: “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.” This outer-focus also leads to a change in how people perceive their quality of life. In medical terms, changing how quality of life is viewed is called “response shift.” “These shifts are purported to lead to a renewed perspective on one’s life circumstances, such as one’s illness, stressors, or personal loss,” says Schwartz.
However, she adds, compassion that leads to giving beyond your resources is worse for mental health than not giving at all.
Compassion and Longevity
Stephanie Brown, evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan, studied elderly people involved in giving. Her study profiled 423 elderly couples for five years. She found that people who provided no help, either practical or emotional, were more than twice as likely to die than their altruistic peers. In contrast, those who received help had no longevity benefits. Helpees included friends, relatives, and family. The results of other studies on altruism’s effect on mortality are similar. In a study of 2,700 residents of Tecumseh, Michigan, researchers found that men who volunteered in their community were two-and-a-half times less likely to die than non-volunteering men.
Luks, the man who coined the term “helper’s high,” says that the pleasure of altruism mostly comes from being with others, noting that donating money doesn’t create the same results. Connecting with others is an aspect of altruism that is healthy on its own. The Stress Institute’s founder Dr. Kathleen Hall states: “Friendships are strong indicators of mental, physical, and spiritual health. Friendship is not a luxury, but is essential to work-life balance and your health. Studies show that isolation decreases immune functioning and increases mortality risk.”
Dr. Hall mentioned spiritual health as an indicator of overall health, and it is. Altruism can work without spirituality, but spirituality cannot work without altruism. Altruism is involved in every moral religion and spirituality. Its health benefits are a wonderful ripple effect.
Deepening our spiritual and/or religious life includes developing altruism. In Transforming the Mind (2000, Thorsons) His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains that since we are all interconnected, it makes sense to shift our focus outwards. “If you shift your focus from yourself to others, extend your concern to others, and cultivate the thought of caring for the well-being of others, then this will have the immediate effect of opening up your life and helping you to reach out,” he writes.
The scholarly world echoes His Holiness’s view. Deborah R. Rhode, director for the Stanford Center on Ethics states: “For many individuals, charitable assistance is thus a way to express deeply felt values. Volunteers often attribute their contributions to desires to create a better society and to express religious beliefs or ethical principles such as commitment to civil liberties or racial equality.”
Participating in a meaningful goal, connecting with others, and making a difference are wonderful reasons for giving our time and care. As long as it is a labor of love and not just labor, we will absorb the benefits. If we have less pain, stress, and disease, it is earned. And if in the process we live longer, it is more time for others, not just ourselves.
Galina Pembroke was a writer who lived in British Columbia, Canada and specialized in health. She passed away in 2009 at age 34. This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine in 2006.