Why Be Good? Essays & Opinions
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Stephen G. Post Ph.D.

Be Good for Your Health

Professor of bioethics and Founding Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University.

Norman Rockwell captured the flourishing associated with being good to your neighbor. Up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Rockwell created The Golden Rule: Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You. There is a palpable serenity and deeply meditative joy in the facial expressions of each individual, from every religion, age, ethnicity, and race. Rockwell placed a white halo-like circle in the middle of the picture to suggest that such a state of mind at its deepest is about as close as we can get to perfection and to the Eternal (if it exists).

The serenity that is so notable on each face in this image probably involves the mesolimbic pathway, which spreads dopamine around the brain, causing a feeling of happiness; in addition, there is probably some secretion of oxytocin, known as the hormone of tranquility in behavioral endocrinology. Studies also point to increased levels of endorphins, which help block pain signals, increase the sense of well-being, and cause what I refer to as the “giver’s glow.” It all looks so appealing!

“Goodness” exists when the security, well-being, and happiness of others is meaningful to us, and in a way that focuses not only on the nearest and dearest, but also leans outward to all people without exception. Intentional acts of kindness—helping and volunteering, empathic listening, compassion, creativity, forgiveness, loyalty, mentoring, respect, and justice—can all be expressions of goodness. We do good not for ourselves, but for others. Nevertheless, as an unintended side effect, we are likely to get a “pay it forward” benefit, allowing us to forget about “pay it back” limitations. Evil, at least in one aspect, involves a love only for those who think and believe just as we do, and a willingness to do away with the others. 

A good, loving, and helpful life is more likely to be happier, healthier, and longer. For several decades, I have pursued precisely that thesis. A recent study of seniors, for example, found not only that volunteering is likely to reduce the risk of dementia, but also concluded that it “is associated with reduced symptoms of depression, better self-reported health, fewer functional limitations, and lower mortality.”

In the 2010 United Healthcare/Volunteer Match Do Good Live Well Study, an online survey of a national sample of 4,582 American adults 18 years and older, these remarkable facts stand out:

41% of us volunteer an average of 100 hours per year

69% of us donate money

68% of volunteers agree that volunteering “has made me feel physically healthier,” 92% that it “enriches my sense of purpose in life,” 89% that it “has improved my sense of well-being,” 73%  that it “lowers my stress levels,” 96% that it  “makes people happier,” 77% that it “improves emotional health,” 78% that it helps with recovery “from loss and disappointment”

Volunteers have less trouble sleeping, less anxiety, less helplessness and hopelessness, better friendships and social networks, and sense of control over chronic conditions   

25% volunteer through workplace, and 76% of them feel better about employer as a result

It would be difficult to identify any pill or vitamin with such a pronounced self-reported impact.

For those interested in young people, a highly significant 2013 investigation on happiness and health examined volunteering in adolescents. At an urban Vancouver high school, 106 sophomore students were split into two groups. One group volunteered regularly for 10 weeks, while the other group was placed on a waiting list for volunteer opportunities. Before and after the study, researchers measured body mass index, inflammation, and cholesterol levels. They also assessed the students’ mental health, mood, and empathy. Volunteers spent one hour per week, helping school children in after school programs—things like homework club, cooking, cards, science club, and sports programs.

After the 10 weeks, the study found lower levels of inflammation and cholesterol, and lower body mass index, in the volunteering students. The volunteers who reported the greatest increases in empathy, altruistic behavior, and mental health saw the greatest reductions in the biological markers. These markers, when elevated, are the first signs of cardiovascular disease, which is spreading in adolescents, with real limits to their anticipated life expectancy.  

In another study published in 2013, some 1,100 older adults ages 51 to 91 were interviewed about their volunteering and had their blood pressure checked in 2006, with a follow-up interview four years later in 2010. Those subjects who were volunteering at least 200 hours in the past year (about four hours per week) at the time of their first interview were 40% less likely to have developed hypertension four years later than nonvolunteers. The researchers suggested that this impact was due to the stress-reducing effects of being active and altruistic.

Almost all the research presented is based on a threshold effect—a certain amount of self-giving activity shows benefits to the giver, but it is not the case that the more one gives the better one feels. Such a linear model is untrue. The model is curvilinear. In other words, as one achieves a certain shift from selfishness to concern for others, benefits accrue. But they begin to tail off once this shift occurs. This will be determined by individual constitution, circumstance, and meaning system—including spirituality.

Many studies show that doing good causes happiness. Helping behavior appears causative, for example, in a study of data from the Americans’ Changing Lives Survey, which found that those who volunteered in 1986 reported in 1989 that they had higher levels of happiness, life-satisfaction, self-esteem, physical health, and lower rates of depression than non-volunteers. An analysis of the Assets and Health Dynamics Among the Oldest Old Study found that persons aged 70 years or older who volunteered at least 100 hours during 1993 had less decline in self-reported health and functioning and lower levels of depression and mortality in 2000. People who volunteered for at least 100 hours annually were two-thirds as likely to report bad health and one-third as likely to die.

“The only ones among you who will be really happy,” observed Albert Schweitzer, “are those who have sought and found how to serve.” It appears he was right.

Stephen G. Post Ph.D. is a professor of bioethics and Founding Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. He is author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People.

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