'Tis Healthier to Give Than to Receive

New study finds that giving to others increases your longevity

MONDAY, Nov. 25, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- That old adage about feeling good when you do something for someone else apparently has more than an emotional ring to it.

Engaging in even a scant amount of altruistic behavior increases longevity, a University of Michigan study has found.

The five-year examination of 423 older couples found that those who reported helping someone else even only once a year were between 40 percent and 60 percent less likely to die than those who reported helping no one at all during the previous 365 days.

"It really looked like it was whether you gave any help or not," says lead author Stephanie Brown, a psychologist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor.

The type of help varied widely and included assisting family members who didn't live in the same place, babysitting for grandchildren, for example, Brown says. No one was paid for these acts of kindness.

The researchers also looked at emotional support between spouses and found that those who were able to make their spouse feel loved and cared for also lived longer than those who denied their emotional support.

While the premise for the study was that helping others would be healthy, "I was surprised by the strength of the findings," Brown admits.

The men were at least 65 years of age, and the women were at least 49. Participants answered a series of questions about their lives conducted during in-person interviews. About 25 percent of those interviewed said they did not help anyone else in the previous year, including not providing their spouse with emotional support, Brown says.

In the five-year period, 134 people died of varying causes. While many would have died anyway, Brown explains, the researchers considered whether the person was a giver or not and took other factors, such as health into account. From that, they found that those that helped others had a 40 percent to-60 percent lower risk of mortality.

Although it's not known how the act of being helpful and kind to others increases your life expectancy, there are some theories, Brown says.

"Giving may induce positive feelings" and buffer cardiovascular effects, she suggests. "We know stress is harmful. The next step is to find out how it is that people who give live longer and have an improvement in health."

Shelley Taylor, a professor of psychology at UCLA and author of The Tending Instinct, says that helping others can relieve your own accumulative stress. "You can derive physical and psychological benefits from knowing you are making someone else's life worthwhile," she says.

Taylor recalls her own father saying he would die only when he couldn't be helpful anymore. ""Just knowing someone else needs you can be gratifying," she agrees. "We should all be giving more than we do."

Thanksgiving may be the perfect time to start, Brown adds.

"Feeding somebody a meal is a good thing," she notes, and asking others to contribute "will help them."

Brown's study has been accepted for publication in Psychological Science and should appear sometime in 2003.

What To Do

To find out more about the benefits of giving, visit this page from Health Canada.

SOURCES: Stephanie Brown, psychologist, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Shelley Taylor, professor of psychology, UCLA, and author of The Tending Instinct
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