Is generosity the ultimate anti-aging strategy? The science of good deeds

When Oscar Wilde wrote, "The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention" he could not have known that a century later, science would find that even small acts of kindness measurably improve health and increase lifespan. One such study showed that people who did regular volunteer work had death rates two-and-one half times lower than those who didn't. Among other things, generosity was found to reduce stress and strengthen the immune system. In fact, stressful events (things such as serious illness, job loss, and financial difficulties) were found to predict an early demise except in those who gave time to volunteer work and similar acts of generosity. By giving more of yourself, you actually get more of yourself!

This “science of good deeds” as dubbed by Jeanie Lerche Davis in a piece for WebMD describes the psychological effects of altruism as the “helper’s high.” It results most likely from an increase in levels of a hormone called oxytocin that is associated with generosity and kindness. According to Harvard psychiatry associate professor Gregory L. Fricchione, MD, "Oxytocin is the mediator of what has been called the 'tend-mend' response, as opposed to the 'fight-flight' response to stress. When you're altruistic and touching people in a positive way, lending a helping hand, your oxytocin level goes up - and that relieves your own stress."

The “fight or flight” response of stress is associated with the hormone cortisol. Animal studies find increasing levels of oxytocin decreased cortisol levels and lowered blood pressure, suggesting a specific mechanism by which a generous state of mind benefits health.

Social psychologist Liz Dunn, who studies links between money and happiness, did a simple experiment that sheds further light on the phenomenon. Subjects were given a small amount of money and told they could give it away or keep as much as they wanted. Tests found that the more money people gave away, the happier they felt, but the more money people kept for themselves the more shame they experienced. As she explained to Christie Nicholson for Scientific American, “the more shame people felt the more we saw their cortisol levels rise.”

So in this season of giving, a good deed is a good thing indeed.

Michael J. Poulin, Stephanie L. Brown, Amanda J. Dillard, and Dylan M. Smith.  Giving to Others and the Association Between Stress and Mortality. American Journal of Public Health: September 2013, Vol. 103, No. 9, pp. 1649-1655.