A study* I read about recently blew me away! It was conducted in Michigan with a large sample size of 2,700 men, and demonstrated that regular acts of altruism prolong our lives and improve our happiness. The men were followed for 10 years and found that those who engaged in regular volunteer activities had death rates half those who didn’t. Woah. Pharmacist Constance Grauds RPh says of this study: “altruistic side effects include reduced stress; improved immune system functioning; a sense of joy, peace and well-being; and even relief from physical and emotional pain.” The above positive effects on the men in the study were shown to last long after the altruistic act, and to “increase with the frequency of altruistic behaviour.” (Grauds)
Another study had participants watch a video of Mother Teresa ministering to the poor in the streets of Calcutta. Just by watching the film, without performing any altruistic act themselves but by getting “more in touch with their own compassion”**, participants’ immune markers increased.
The HeartMath Institute conducted a study which showed that “feelings of care and compassion increase the production of immune factors. With better immune responses, those who perform altruistic acts live longer too, reducing their odds of an early death by nearly 60%”.**
Not that we need a study to tell us that doing good things for others is a wonderful thing to do, is morally gratifying and makes us feel good. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this, and I’m sure we’d want to contribute positively to others whether or not it improved our health! The fact is, though, that when we feel good, well, we are healthier! Our immune function improves and we produce more of the proteins to beneficial to our cellular health. Doing good for others also shifts us out of a narrowly self-focused perception often indicative of a survival or stress state, and into a state where we can thrive.
A man approached Siddha Yoga guru, Baba Muktananda, one day and asked Baba for help. He felt miserable, life was awful… He desperately needed Baba to help him. Baba said to him (and I’m noting his words here as I remember hearing them): “What have you done for someone else today?”
The man shook his head: “No, Baba, you don’t understand. I need help! I’m in a dreadful state and I don’t know what to do. Please help me!”
Baba replied: “What have you done for someone else today?”
After a couple more similar tos and fros, the man slouched away, shaking his head, miserable, still believing that Baba simply hadn’t understood him. Muktananda understood the profound positive effect of doing good for others, but this man wasn’t able to see beyond himself and his own misery.
One of the things that spurred me to write about the effects of altruism has been the impression on me that several altruistic people have had recently. Getrude Matsche certainly comes to mind, with HerStory Circle and her many other projects. Another person who comes to mind and who I’ll soon have the great privilege of interviewing as a guest on our podcast is Matthew Boyd. Matthew is enabling people to do good for others via Vollie, an online marketplace he founded and is the CEO of, which “is unlocking a new style of skills-based remote volunteering”. Wow – we can even volunteer remotely now! Here are some impressive stats from Vollie’s 4 years of operation:
- 4,000+ social impact projects completed to date, through
- 200,000+ skilled volunteering hours,
- generating over $5 million savings to the
- current 925+ non-profits using the service
… and then there’s the lady who collects furniture donations and keeps it all in her garage so that refugees can furnish their houses…
… and the people who make it their intention to make everyone they come in contact with feel better, in some way…
… and those who drop off food when we most need support…
… and those who walk dogs for those who are no longer able…
Altruism is happening all around us all the time. Good things are happening all the time, despite what the media chooses to report. Just imagine if we all consciously chose to notice it, to do good for others and be happy!
Why on earth not?
*Wallis, C. (2005). The new science of happiness. Time, January 15, 2005. (Also mentioned in Dawson Church The Genie in your Genes and Constance Graud’s book The Energy Prescription.
**Dawson Church The Genie in your Genes