Give and Live

The Bible insists it's more blessed to give than to receive. And if you define living a long and healthy life as blessed, then indeed the Bible is on the mark… or is it Paul? Science has added its own grace note, furnishing some supporting evidence that giving increases the giver's longevity. And that receiving support, while helpful in some ways, isn't always an unmitigated blessing.

The kinds of giving we're talking about are things like driving a friend to the doctor's, helping a sick or elderly neighbor with shopping, volunteering to deliver meals to the housebound or caring for a chronically ill family member. These are known in the psych biz as instrumental support. Then there's out and out emotional support, the kinds husbands and wives give each other, which includes things like making the other person feel loved, cared for and listened to when they need to talk.

Intuitively we believe that helping makes the other person feel better. But receiving support can also generate feelings of dependence. And depending on other people for help and support can cause guilt or anxiety. It can make people feel like a burden to others, and even heighten tendencies to suicide among receivers.

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For some time now, researchers have known that social contact can have a measurable impact on protecting people's health. It seems to boost the immune system, lower the frequency of colds and other infections. It speeds wound healing. But now it turns out that not all social contact is created equal. And the benefits of social contact may belong only to those who are on the giving end of the contact.

Giving, finds a team of researchers at the University of Michigan, reduces mortality and promotes longevity. It doesn't matter whether the support is in the form of the kind of emotional support that spouses exchange or the instrumental help one might provide to a neighbor. Either way, it has a significant impact on the giver.

And receiving has no impact whatsoever on mortality.

Helping others reduces distress in givers, improves both mental and physical health. It gives people a sense of belonging and of mattering. It increases happiness, decreases depression. In short, it increases positive emotions. And positive emotions are good for the body, promoting cardiovascular health and boosting the immune system.

So now there's scientific proof: Helping others is a way of helping yourself.

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