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By Stephen G. Post
Altruistic (other-regarding) emotions and behaviors are associated with greater well-being, health, and longevity. This article presents a summary and assessment of existing research data on altruism and its relation to mental and physical health. It suggests several complimentary interpretive frameworks, including evolutionary biology, physiological models, and positive psychology. Potential public health implications of this research are discussed, as well as directions for future studies. The article concludes, with some caveats, that a strong correlation exists between the well-being, happiness, health, and longevity of people who are emotionally and behaviorally compassionate, so long as they are not overwhelmed by helping tasks.
The vast majority of people in the European Union and the United States have more material wealth than did their parents; the percentage of these populations that is happy, however, has not increased, and depression and anxiety rates have risen dramatically (Easterbrook, 2003). The rise in depression rates is in part due to greater public and medical awareness. However, such elevated rates require serious reflectionon our social environment, which has been described by one sociologist with the terms “bowling alone” andloss of “social capital” (Putnam, 2001). These terms suggest that a partial solution to the problem may lie with the restoration of prosocial altruistic emotions and behaviors. Current research does indeed show a strong association between kindly emotions, helping behavior, or both, on the one hand, and well-being, health, and longevity, on the other. This article summarizes and interprets existing research, points to future research directions, and suggests implications of such research for public health.
If kind emotions, helping behavior, or both are associated with well-being, health, and longevity, the implications for how we think about human nature and prosperity are significant (Hendrick & Hendrick, 1986; Levin, 2000). Although those who are physically overwhelmed, mentally overwhelmed, or both by the needs of others do experience a stressful “burden” thatcan have significant negative health consequences, as in the case of the stressed care giver of a loved one with dementia (Kiecolt-Glaser, Preacher, MacCallum, Malarkey, & Glaser, 2003), there are health benefits linkedto helping behavior when it is not experienced as overwhelming. A relevant study (Schwartz, Meisenhelder, Ma, & Reed, 2003) points to health benefits in generous behavior but with the important caveat that there are clear adverse health consequences associated with being overly taxed. Although the health benefits of receiving love are widely deemed significant, we want to go beyond the recipient to examine benefits for the agent. What happens to the health and longevity of people whoare (a) emotionally kind, (b) charitable in their actions toward others without being overwhelmed, or both? tests). Drawing on her own studies and those of AliceEmotional states and related behaviors have been studied by mainstream scientists in relation to health promotion and disease prevention (Oman, Thoresen, & McMahon, 1999; Young & Glasgow, 1998). However,the impact of positive emotional states and related behaviors on health constitutes a novel area for researchers (Edwards & Cooper, 1988). In the 1990s, for example,Danner et al. (2001) reviewed short, personal essays written by nuns in the 1930s; this was a secondary project in their famous nun study on Alzheimer disease. The nuns who expressed the most positive emotions were living about 10 years longer than those who expressed the fewest such emotions, and they were somewhat protected from the onset of dementia (Danner et al.,2001). In another example, Fredrickson (2003) summarized 2 decades of investigation and concluded that positive emotions were linked with a “broader thought action repertoire,” which is to say that “big picture”creative thinking was enhanced (as measured by standard tests). Drawing on her own studies and those of Alice Isen (1987), Frederickson found that “when people feel good, their thinking becomes more creative, integrative, flexible and open to information” (p. 333). She also found that positive emotions enhanced psychological and physical resilience and interpreted this effect as aresult of the “undoing” of negative emotions that are clearly physically harmful. However, “helpful compassionate acts,” she also argued, just allow people to feel elevated and good about themselves and others (Post, Underwood, Schloss, & Hurlbut, 2002).
There are few new ideas in the world. The link between “reasonable” altruism—that is, helping behavior that is not overwhelming—and health is at the coreof Dickens’ story of Ebenezer Scrooge; for with each new expression of benevolence, Scrooge became morebuoyant, until finally he was among the most generous of men in all of England and appeared all the more effervescentand fit. He surely felt a great deal happier with life the more generous he became, following thepattern of the “helper’s high” (Luks, 1988). There is noeither–or dualism between quickening that innate capacityfor benevolence and the fuller actualization of a happier and healthier self (Frankl, 1956). Setting aside preoccupation with “purity” and perfectly selfless motives, it may be that people who live generous lives soon become aware that in the giving of self lies the unsought discovery of self as the old selfish pursuit of happiness is subjectively revealed as futile and shortsighted. Dostoyevsky’s images of the Elder Zossimahave the same buoyancy. Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and Native American spiritual traditions highlight the flourishing that follows from a life of unselfishlove—a life in tune with one’s true self (Post,2002). Thus, there is an alternative image to that of the selfless ascetic who seems intent on withering away,(Goode, 1959)
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