Are Ungenerous People More Likely to Die Young?
Intergenerational sharing and longevity may be linked, a 34-country study finds.
Posted September 2, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Accumulating evidence suggests that generosity and longevity may go hand in hand. Countless studies have found that altruism and prosocial behaviors such as sharing, volunteering, or helping others in times of distress can create a psychophysiological win-win for both the giver and the receiver.
The "warm glow" created by prosocial behavior is emotionally rewarding and promotes psychological well-being and better mental health.
Usually, when someone in need is the recipient of another person's generosity, everyone can see tangible benefits. But kindhearted generosity also benefits the altruist in more discreet physiological ways that are less obvious, such as improving vagus nerve-mediated parasympathetic responses and up-regulating heart rate variability (Bornemann et al., 2016).
Another example of how helping others benefits the do-gooder in unexpected ways: Earlier this year, researchers reported (Wang et al., 2020) that altruistic behaviors can relieve physical pain.
Now, another altruism-related study (Vogt, Kluge, & Lee, 2020) reports that higher levels of intergenerational resource sharing are linked to lower mortality rates across a society. These findings were published on August 31 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
For this study, a three-person international team of researchers that included Tobias Vogt and Fanny Kluge of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany and Ronald Lee of the Demography Department at the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed swaths of data from the National Transfer Accounts: Understanding the Generational Economy project.
The NTA measures "how people at each age produce, consume/share resources, and save for the future" in dozens of different countries. This "big data" project includes a tally of all the transfer payments and financial support an individual has received in his or her lifetime. The NTA project also tracks macro-level private transfers between generations and provides a macro-level analysis of people's health, old-age support systems, and mortality.
A Global Perspective on Intergenerational Resource Sharing and Mortality
"What is new about our study is that for the first time, we have combined transfer payments from state and family and evaluated the effect," Kluge said in a news release.
"Our findings from 34 countries on six continents suggest that survival is higher in societies that provide more support and care for one another," the authors write. "We suggest that this support reduces mortality by meeting urgent material needs, but also that sharing generosity may reflect the strength of social connectedness, which itself benefits human health and well-being and indirectly raises survival."
One significant limitation of the NTA data is that it only considers "monetary or material transfers in relation to mortality differentials." The intergenerational resource sharing used for this study does not include time transfers (e.g., childcare, elder care, household errands, etc.), which would give researchers a more comprehensive real-world assessment of the link between transferred resources and mortality.
The authors acknowledge that sharing-generosity measures that include non-monetary data "might be particularly important for developing countries, where support systems for children and the elderly are less institutionalized." They also note that future research should explore the "macro-level association between transfer generosity and mortality."
Although the correlation between generosity and longevity observed in this study may be a reflection of per capita wealth and other socioeconomic factors, the authors point out that "altruistic behaviors and risk sharing are deeply rooted in human evolution" and that "willingness to share has been critically important for our past evolutionary success and our present daily lives."
Since the dawn of humankind, prosocial behavior has been vital for our individual and collective survival. Even if someone's motivation for sharing resources with others is somewhat Machiavellian or driven by quid-pro-quo expectations of helping others to ultimately help oneself, society as a whole may still benefit from self-interested altruistic resource sharing.
"The motivations to provide financial or non-material support are closely linked and contribute to the high levels of prosocial behavior that are found in human societies," the authors write. From a public health and policy-making perspective, promoting intergenerational resource sharing may be an underutilized way to improve people's psychological and physical well-being and lower mortality rates.
Tobias Vogt, Fanny Kluge, and Ronald Lee. "Intergenerational Resource Sharing and Mortality in a Global Perspective." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (First published: August 31, 2020) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1920978117