Physical health benefits
But altruism doesn’t only trigger happy feelings. Giving back may be good for your physical health too.
For example, two studies suggest that spending money on others is good for cardiovascular health – which may be because generosity helps lower cortisol levels5. Of course, you don’t have to spend a cent to help others and reap the physical benefits of altruism. Giving your time to benefit someone else – such as looking after a friend’s children or pets, or doing an elderly relative’s shopping for them – could provide the same heart-protective results.
Psychological benefits of giving back
Evidence suggests that giving enhances a person’s general sense of wellbeing6. Studies of volunteers have shown that helping others can lead to a greater sense of happiness and decrease symptoms of depression. What’s more, being in the position to give had a stronger effect on mental health than being helped by others7.
Helping other people can also result in more positive behaviours and attitudes. For example, a study of young people who took part in helping activities found their altruistic behaviour led to more positive social interactions and a stronger sense of purpose. They were also less likely to get involved with risky practices such as substance abuse or underage drinking8.
Helping others who have similar problems can be psychologically beneficial, too. Research found that people in 12-step groups who help others in their recovery from addiction experience better self-awareness and improved social skills9.
Even just wishing others well can benefit your health. A study found that loving kindness meditation (where the meditator focuses on wishing others well) had the same benefits to wellbeing as undertaking a light exercise program.
Altruism and ageing positivity
There’s evidence that suggests stress can cause cells to age – so by extension, chronic stress can make our bodies age prematurely.7 Conversely, helping other people can activate neurotransmitters and hormones which can help alleviate stress. Because altruism can help decrease stress, it may also help protect us against ageing prematurely10.
A study found that older people who engage in positive behaviours such as volunteering contributed to them living longer than their peers11. Meanwhile in another study, older people who helped others have reported better physical health than those who didn’t.7