We feel good when we do a good deed, so there must be a psychological benefit to helping others? But how can we know for sure? The best way to study the health benefits of kind deeds is to look at studies of volunteering.
In 2011, Daniel George conducted a randomised trial with 30 adults in Ohio with mild to moderate dementia. Half the adults spent an hour every two weeks helping young school children with reading, writing and history. The other half (the control group) were assigned to not do any voluntary work. At the end of the five-month study, stress was lowered more in the adults who helped than in the adults who didn’t.
However, the study was small, so in 2012 researchers conducted a meta-analysis where data from several studies are combined and re-analysed in order to provide more reliable statistics.
The meta-analysis contained five randomised trials with a total of 477 people. They yielded a mixed bag of results. The types of volunteering involved some form of teaching – either tutoring young children or helping people learn English as a second language. The volunteer work seemed to improve things such as mental function, physical activity, strength and stress.
However, it didn’t seem to have a positive effect on general health, the number of falls (among elderly volunteers) and loneliness. To make things more complicated, doing the wrong sort of volunteering – where the volunteer stands the risk of verbal or physical abuse – can be detrimental to the person’s well-being. Equally, some volunteer work can be detrimental to the people the volunteer is trying to help.
A recent, well-conducted study in Canada looked at the physical effects of doing voluntary work that benefits both the helper and the helped. It seems to confirm that helping people (in the right way) improves the volunteers' health – in objective, laboratory-measured ways.
Researchers asked 52 high school students in Canada to volunteer once a week, helping younger students with their homework, sports and other after school activities. For comparison, a control group of 54 students did no volunteer work over the same period.
The researchers then took blood samples from both groups – and measured their body mass index – before and after the study. The blood samples were used to measure biomarkers which predict whether someone is likely to develop cardiovascular disease. At the end of the study, the adolescents who did the volunteer work had greater reductions in all of the biomarkers associated with cardiovascular disease than those in the control group. They also lost more weight.
How helping helps the helper
Some volunteering, such as taking a housebound person’s dog for a walk, is physical and can help improve your fitness. But merely connecting with people has health benefits too. Volunteering may also reduce stress by taking your mind off problems and helping you relax.
There could also be an evolutionary mechanism. Parts of the brain linked to dopamine and serotonin production seem to be activated in people who donate money. Our ancient ancestors who helped each other were more likely to survive, so received a dopamine “high” in exchange for altruistic behaviour. Dopamine doesn’t just make us feel good, it is also used as medicine for treating low blood pressure, heart disease, Parkinson’s, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and drug addiction.
The good news is, you don’t have to quit your job to join Greenpeace or work in a refugee shelter to gain the health benefits of helping others. You could, instead, help the next homeless person you see. Why not offer them a cup of coffee or some clean clothes? Doing these small things will improve the homeless person’s life in a measurable way, and might even make you healthier, too.