Researchers say giving leads to a healthier, happier life
Benefits of altruistic love are broken down in a new book, 'Why good things happen to good people.'
During his childhood on Long Island, N.Y., Stephen Post absorbed a lesson that is playing out powerfully in his and others' lives.Skip to next paragraph
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"Whenever I would get into an unhappy, down mood, my mother would always say, 'Well, Stevie, why don't you go out and help somebody,' " he recalls. "I would go out and rake leaves or help a neighbor put canvas over a boat."
He still remembers those small moments vividly because they did make him feel better. And they gave him the impression that helping others was rewarding. Now he knows it for sure.
For the past five years, Dr. Post has been funding research projects that test how altruism, compassion, and giving affect people's lives and well-being.
As head of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (IRUL), at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he has sponsored more than 50 studies by scientists from 54 major universities. In a wide range of disciplines – from public health to human development to neuroscience, sociology, and evolutionary biology – the studies have demonstrated that love and caring expressed in doing good for others lead people to have healthier, happier, and even longer lives.
"Giving is the most potent force on the planet ... and will protect you your whole life," says Post, a bioethicist who has taught in the medical school at Case Western for 19 years.
IRUL research is part of a significant shift under way within key scientific disciplines from focusing just on the deficit or disease model of human nature to studying the positive, virtuous, and thriving aspects. In the process, the research is
broadening the understanding of what contributes to health and longevity.
"For a long time, medicine was boxed into a biomedical model ... but there's a need for a broader view," says Doug Oman, of the University of California at Berkeley's School of Public Health. "There's an ongoing, probably long process of trying to conceptualize ... influences on health that take into account classical virtues and spirituality.... Compassion and altruism are key topics for expanding that understanding."
Even some in evolutionary biology, a field long known for proclaiming "the selfish gene," are on board.
"A lot of my colleagues view it very positively," says David Sloan Wilson, a prominent evolutionary biologist famous for his work on "group selection." Dr. Wilson has studied how altruistic teenagers fare within differing social environments – situations where they thrive and others where they are under great stress – as well as group altruism. He praises the institute for identifying and supporting "a neglected set of subjects" for research.
So encouraging are empirical results on altruistic love, that Post and science journalist Jill Neimark have co-written a new book to share the findings, titled "Why Good Things Happen to Good People." The findings include, for example:
•Generous behavior reduces depression and risk of suicide in adolescents.
•Actively helping others during the teenage years promotes good physical and mental health all the way into late adulthood.
•Volunteerism on the part of older adults significantly reduces mortality.
•Giving to others enables people to forgive themselves for mistakes, a key element in well-being.
•Praying for others reduces health difficulties among older adults.
The book also highlights stories of lives that have been transformed by generous living. And it devotes a chapter to each of 10 ways of giving to others that have proven to increase life satisfaction: nurturing, celebration, forgiveness, courage to speak out, humor, respect, compassion, loyalty, creativity, and listening.