Altruism: Key to Happiness

Here is a thought for the New Year: Extending the holiday spirit of altruism (selfless concern for the welfare of others) throughout the year may well be an effective way to improve your physical and mental health, and even increase your longevity. Evidence suggests that most individuals who help other people, even perfect strangers, derive multiple benefits from their generous acts.

A review of 73 studies published over the past 45 years on the effects of volunteering on older adults found a significant association between altruistic endeavors and greater happiness and health. The review, which appeared in the August 25, 2014 issue of the Psychological Bulletin, concluded that “volunteering is associated with reduced symptoms of depression, better self-reported health, fewer functional limitations, and lower mortality,” and is likely to reduce dementia risk, as well. The review follows earlier research in which cognitive tests and brain scans of older adults who volunteered for six months in various capacities revealed improvements in cognitive functioning and positive changes in activation patterns in brain regions involved in planning, complex problem-solving, and organizing.

“This review adds to evidence from prior research that choosing to be helpful to others is an important aspect of being a healthy, resilient, happy human being,” says Gregory Fricchione, MD, Associate Chief of Psychiatry at MGH and Director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.

“However, the benefits of altruism appear to be most apparent when individuals start with a sense of well-being, and have the capacity to give their help willingly. People who are under stress themselves or whose lack of resiliency makes it difficult to cope with adversity may find that stretching themselves to the limit for others can become distressing. But the good news is that by learning ways to reduce stress and increase resiliency one can make charitable activities easier to manage and open up altruism as a health-promoting activity.”


These simple strategies may help you expand your habit of giving to others:

  • Practice loving-kindness meditation. Sit comfortably in a quiet setting, close your eyes, and focus on three or four simple phrases enumerating the benefits you wish for yourself, such as, “May I be happy,” or “May I be healthy.” Over the next five minutes or so, direct these wishes toward loved ones, then toward individuals you feel neutral about, then toward individuals whom you do not like or whose behavior is distressing to you. Finally, direct the positive phrases to everyone universally. Regular meditation is tied to increased positive feelings and lower risk for depression.
  • Try to shift your focus from yourself to others.Excessive self-absorption is associated with higher stress levels, while concern for others fosters improved social relationships and lowers stress.
  • Practice forgiveness. Consciously letting go of feelings such as anger and the urge for retribution that are linked to another’s behavior frees you from the grip of these negative emotions.

Benefits explained

Altruistic behavior appears to benefit older adults by distracting them from preoccupation with their own problems and choices, encouraging positive social relationships, enhancing morale, and promoting feelings of meaningfulness, self-esteem, life satisfaction, and well-being, Dr. Fricchione says. Studies suggest that this is especially true when altruistic behavior is rooted in a concern for the welfare of others rather than anticipation of rewards.

“Helping others appears to improve mood and emotional attitude by replacing harmful negative feelings and attitudes with more positive ones,” he explains. “Instead of focusing on feelings such as fear, anxiety, sadness, depression, anger, and hostility—all of which have been associated with health problems, and especially those related to heart disease—the altruistic individual is more likely to experience feelings such as happiness, compassion, and forgiveness. This may explain why the altruist tends to be more physically robust and emotionally healthy, perhaps, all things being equal, leading to a happier, longer life.”

Biological underpinnings

Research suggests that altruistic feelings and behaviors generate brain changes that serve to reinforce a concern for others. Altruism activates the brain’s reward pathways, releasing brain chemicals such as dopamine, which elevates mood, and endorphins, which help block pain signals and increase the sense of well-being. Studies of altruistic individuals suggest that their positive feelings may make cells in the brain and body more resistant to inflammation and of stress, as well.

“The pro-social behavior and social support associated with altruism make perfect biological sense, since by encouraging us to give and receive help from others, they promote the resiliency of individuals within social groups,” Dr. Fricchione points out. “A person in dire straits will choose to go to others for social support, which reduces his or her stress and feelings such as anxiety, hostility, depression, and fear. The individual who supplies help benefits by contributing to others in a positive way, which leads to greater feelings of optimism, purpose, and so forth. It all fits together.”

Ways to boost altruism

There are many ways to strengthen your feelings of altruism (See What You Can Do for several examples). And you will find that there are abundant opportunities to translate altruistic feelings into concrete actions both in everyday life and through organized groups and activities. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Do at least one good deed a day. Look for ways to help others as situations arise throughout your day. For example, offer to carry a neighbor’s groceries or help your friend change a tire. Be generous with your smiles.
  • Demonstrate empathy towards others. Use your voice, the touch of your hand, or a sympathetic look to convey your support for others.
  • Think about the help you have received from others, and express gratitude. Acknowledging the help of others with a “thank you” makes them feel appreciated and boosts your own happiness, research suggests.
  • Volunteer your time. You might pitch in at a relief agency or tutor a local student. Studies show that volunteering just two to three hours a week can provide major benefits.
  • Give financial support. Helping others through a charitable donation or gift is personally rewarding and vital to the success of many charities.
  • Help a stranger. Research suggests that people who have received help from someone they don’t know are highly likely to “pay it forward” by helping out others in the same way.

“The simple truth—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—receives support from the data pertaining to altruistic acts of kindness,” says Dr. Fricchione. “As long as you keep in mind your own healthy limits to self-giving, altruism turns out to be a win-win strategy for life. The neat thing is that other-regarding work leads to self-regarding benefits!” MMM

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