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?

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.

In a study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine earlier this year, researchers conducted two separate surveys involving 746 and 350 midlife adults, respectively. They measured the time these individuals spent helping others or volunteering in their daily lives, while also assessing the levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6) in their blood.
Interleukin-6 (IL-6) serves as one of the markers for measuring systemic inflammation. For instance, following a COVID-19 virus infection, patients may experience a "cytokine storm," where the body's immune system reacts excessively to the virus, resulting in the overproduction of various cytokines, including IL-6. This can ultimately lead to significant damage to tissues and organs. Excessive inflammation can be fatal, while chronic inflammation can lead to various diseases, including stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, cancer, chronic kidney disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and neurodegenerative conditions, among others.

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.

The study indicated that the benefits of helping others extend beyond increasing social interactions or gaining long-term support from others—the act of giving itself seems to bring about numerous health advantages.

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 Become

However, 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.
Therefore, it is essential to maintain a balance. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2021 revealed that, over a 23-year follow-up period, individuals who maintained a balance of giving and receiving support exhibited the lowest all-cause mortality rate. Conversely, those who either received support disproportionately or gave support disproportionately had a relatively higher risk of mortality.

Unique Benefits of Helping People Around You

While 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.

The amygdala is associated with the processing of emotional stimuli, and during times of stress, this region sends distress signals to the hypothalamus, triggering the brain's "fight or flight" response. Increased activity in the amygdala region is noticeable in individuals dealing with psychological conditions such as anxiety, fear, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and excessive amygdala activity can also lead to chronic inflammation.
The second study of the research also found that individuals who frequently gave support to friends, family, or strangers showed significantly reduced activity in the amygdala, while those who regularly made donations to charitable organizations or volunteered at such organizations did not exhibit this phenomenon.

Helping Others Leads to Happiness

Spending 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.
In a study published in the journal Emotion in 2016, participants were randomly assigned to four groups. Each group was instructed to perform either three acts of kindness for themselves, for others, for the world, or to maintain their neutral behavior. Participants in each group were asked to document their actions. The findings revealed that engaging in acts of kindness for others or for the world resulted in more significant improvements in mental well-being compared to self-focused or neutral behavior. Positive emotions such as love, trust, gratitude, or pride increased, while negative emotions like anxiety, self-blame, and sadness decreased.

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.

A study published in the journal Science in 2008 found that spending money on others may have a more significant positive impact on happiness than spending money on oneself. The researchers analyzed 16 employees who received bonuses, emphasizing the bonus amounts, spending patterns, and changes in their happiness levels before and after receiving the bonuses. The findings indicated that participants who allocated a larger portion of their bonuses to others or charitable contributions experienced greater happiness. Interestingly, the actual amount of the bonus received did not have a significant correlation with their overall happiness.
In a separate experiment, participants were given either $5 or $20 and were instructed to spend the money either on themselves or on others. The results showed that regardless of whether they received $5 or $20, the group that chose to spend the money on others experienced greater happiness.

Virtue Is the Foundation of Happiness and Health

Dr. 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.
A study published in PNAS in 2013 revealed that individuals with hedonic well-being and those with eudaimonic well-being exhibited distinct patterns of immune gene expression, particularly the expression of a stress-related conserved transcriptional response to adversity. People with high levels of hedonic well-being exhibited an increased expression of genes involved in inflammation and a decreased expression of genes related to antiviral responses, leading to lower immunity. On the contrary, individuals with high levels of eudaimonic well-being exhibited a decreased expression of genes involved in inflammation and an increased expression of genes related to antiviral responses, indicating enhanced anti-inflammatory and antiviral capabilities. While both groups experienced happiness, there were notable differences in gene expression.
Dr. Yang pointed out that modern popular culture often promotes various forms of pleasure as the best means to attain happiness. This viewpoint suggests that with leisure time and financial resources, you can continuously pursue pleasure to find happiness. However, in reality, many affluent individuals are not happy. Even continuously engaging in activities that bring enjoyment can gradually lead to a loss of novelty and even emotional numbness. He emphasized that a better approach to increasing happiness involves participating in activities that provide spiritual fulfillment. As Aristotle stated:
"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.

Dr. Yang stated:
"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."