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THE M.D.

The rewards of volunteering

Doing good for others has mental and physical health benefits, researchers say.

August 10, 2009|Valerie Ulene

For more than 20 years, Penny and Ted Landreth have been feeding the hungry and homeless. It's not glamorous work. Afternoons, they -- along with a small but formidable group of volunteers -- prepare dinner using whatever food donations they happen to have on hand. The couple then head for the corner of Romaine Street and Sycamore Avenue in Los Angeles, where up to 150 men and women wait for what may be their only meal of the day.

The benefits of Penny and Ted's hard work are obvious. The organization they started, the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition, serves an estimated 45,000 meals each year. But, as it turns out, Penny and Ted's clients may not be the only ones who gain from their altruism. Doing good may work to the couple's advantage as well.

Behaving altruistically not only feels good, a growing body of research suggests, it actually improves a person's physical and psychological health. "One of the best things we can do for our health is to learn to be more caring and compassionate," says Stephen Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in New York.

The effects of altruistic behavior on mental health have been fairly well documented. "Happiness is a byproduct of living generously," Post says.

A study published last year in the journal Science examined the relationship between philanthropy and well-being. Researchers analyzed the spending patterns of more than 600 men and women and questioned them about their general happiness. Money used to pay bills or buy things for themselves was considered "personal spending"; gifts for others and donations to charities were categorized as "pro-social spending." Personal spending was found to be unrelated to happiness, whereas pro-social spending was directly correlated to it.

Volunteering has also been shown to have a positive effect on people's mental state, particularly as they age. Volunteerism serves as a way to keep older adults active in the community and prevents them from becoming socially isolated. It's thought that volunteerism also enhances older adults' sense of belonging, increases their sense of purpose and improves their perception of their own self-competence.

Teens aren't immune to the mood-enhancing effects of altruistic behavior. A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality in 2008 showed that students who engage in virtue-building activities such as volunteering report being happier than their more hedonistic counterparts. Pleasure-seeking behavior, such as drinking alcohol, had no effect on happiness whatsoever.

Longevity factor

The positive effects of giving behavior appear to extend beyond a person's state of mind to their physical health. "People that help others live longer than those who don't," says Stephanie Brown, assistant professor of general medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and a faculty associate at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

A 2003 study by Brown followed more than 1,500 elderly couples for five years; it found that people who provided hands-on support (such as help with transportation, shopping housework or childcare) to friends, relatives or neighbors were half as likely to die over the study period as their less helpful counterparts.

The specific mechanisms by which altruistic behavior translates into better health are not yet well understood. Experts such as Brown and Post speculate that acting in a warm, compassionate way affects certain hormones and chemicals in the body.

"There's a growing body of evidence showing that compassionate care and helping activities elevate levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine," says Stony Brook's Post, who wrote "Good Things Happen to Good People." "They also impact the release of endorphins, the body's natural opiates, resulting in what has been widely documented as the 'helper's high.' "

Compassionate activities are associated with elevated levels of oxytocin, a hormone that triggers a number of favorable physiological changes throughout the body. Higher levels of oxytocin, for example, are associated with a reduction in the levels of certain stress hormones that cause undue wear and tear on the body. "Acts of kindness always move us away from hostile and angry emotions that are clearly connected with elevated stress and higher mortality over the years," Post says.

It's also still unclear whether one form of altruism is more health-enhancing than another. Giving money may be just as beneficial as donating time; providing emotional support might be just as advantageous as helping in a more hands-on ways.

Charitable behavior

Altruism -- in any form -- doesn't come naturally to everyone. Some individuals are clearly more inclined to reach out and involve themselves in charitable activities. Research suggests that the proclivity may be, at least in part, genetic. Perhaps more important is a person's social environment, particularly when growing up.

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