Is Altruism a Path to Greater Mental and Physical Health?
Is Altruism a Path to Greater Mental and Physical Health? - The key to happiness, and even physical well-being, may lie in the pleasures derived through giving to individuals in need, our communities, and the world.
Is Altruism a Path to Greater Mental and Physical Health?
Chronic inflammation is the root cause of many diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and neurodegenerative disorders. Fortunately, there are many lifestyle choices that can help reduce chronic inflammation and recent research suggests that regularly helping others may be one of them.
The results of the study revealed a significant association between engaging in activities that provide support to others (including comforting friends and family, doing household chores, or volunteering for charitable organizations) and a notable reduction in interleukin-6 (IL-6) levels. Furthermore, those who help others more frequently exhibit lower levels of inflammation in their bodies. Researchers believe that this may help explain why individuals inclined towards helping others are more likely to experience a healthier and longer lifespan.
The researchers also sought to account for other factors that might affect inflammation. In addition to variables like body mass index, age, gender, and medication usage, they also took into account the social network size of the individuals. This is because engaging in frequent acts of kindness often implies a higher level of involvement in social activities, and the positive impact of social interactions on one's health has long been confirmed. Interestingly, the researchers found that receiving support from others was not linked to reduced inflammation levels.
Why Does Helping Others Reduce Inflammation in the Body?Researchers have pointed out that this remains a question requiring further investigation, but a series of medical experiments have provided some indicative findings. From a neurological perspective, this phenomenon might be attributed to the impact of altruistic actions on neural activity, particularly within brain regions associated with inflammatory responses. It may also modulate the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, preventing inflammation triggered by an excessive sympathetic nervous system response. Additionally, previous studies have also established a significant link between feelings of loneliness and the secretion of IL-6, suggesting that helping others may alleviate these feelings. Furthermore, it can also instill a greater sense of purpose in life, thereby enhancing overall happiness.
The More You Help, the Healthier You BecomeHowever, the researchers pointed out that helping others more frequently does not always equate to better health. A good example is long-term caregivers. Previous research has shown that those caring for ill family members often have elevated levels of IL-6. This phenomenon may be attributed to the chronic stress arising from the deteriorating health of their loved ones and the reduced social interactions that typically come with long-term caregiving, resulting in feelings of social isolation. It is essential to highlight that these findings differ from those outlined in the present study, where a higher frequency of helping others was associated with lower inflammation levels.
Unique Benefits of Helping People Around YouWhile helping friends and family or volunteering for organizations both contribute to reducing the risk of chronic inflammation, Dr. Tristen K. Inagaki, the first author of the study, found in his earlier research that helping those within one's immediate social circle yields unique health benefits.
This research consisted of two studies. In the first study, 45 participants completed a giving support task, where they could choose to win raffle tickets for either a familiar person they believed needed them, donate them to a charitable organization, or keep them for themselves. In comparison to the task where they won raffle tickets for a charitable organization, participants exhibited less right amygdala activity in the brain when winning the raffle ticket for a familiar person.
Helping Others Leads to HappinessSpending time or money to help others and benefit society can enhance our physical and mental well-being. Numerous studies have corroborated that shifting from self-interest to altruism has consistently led to increased happiness and various health benefits.
This study also found that altruistic behaviors lead to lasting happiness. Two weeks after completing this program, both the groups that engaged in acts of kindness for others or for the world continued to experience improved emotions.
Virtue Is the Foundation of Happiness and HealthDr. Jingduan Yang, director of the Northern Medical Center and a board-certified psychiatrist, explained that psychologists categorize human happiness into two distinct types. The first is hedonic well-being, which is attained from the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, encompassing sensory enjoyment. The second is eudaimonic well-being, achieved through the pursuit of life's purpose and the actualization of one's intrinsic values, involving spiritual elevation.
"To attain happiness, one should lead a life in accordance with human virtues."So, how can one achieve eudaimonic well-being? Dr. Yang explained that from a psychological standpoint, five factors contribute to spiritual happiness:
1. Having autonomy over one's environment, choosing one's life attitude, lifestyle, and beliefs.
2. Continuously striving for self-improvement, realizing one's intrinsic worth and personal growth.
3. Achieving personal life goals and understanding the meaning of one's life.
4. Avoiding comparison with others, accepting and respecting oneself, and working towards becoming a better version of oneself.
5. Maintaining positive interactions and contributing more to others and society.
"Human happiness doesn't merely stem from sensory gratification and emotional pleasure. More importantly, it comes from the pursuit of life's meaning and personal values. Spiritual well-being enhances our immunity and overall health, while the pursuit of sensory pleasures may potentially undermine our immunity and health."