Cooperating and helping others reduces stress and improves health

by Feb 24, 2013Altruism, Health0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 5 minutes
A couple of very interesting studies came out in the last few weeks which might surprise those who believe that monetary and material success is the best way to health and happiness. One huge new study is just published by the American Psychological Association. This was led by Lara Aknin [1] who has done a massive amount of research on altruism and wellbeing. Amazingly this found a positive relationship between personal well-being and spending on others in 120 of 136 countries covered in the 2006-2008 Gallup World Poll. The survey comprised 234,917 individuals, half of whom were male, with an average age of 38. The link between well-being and spending on others was significant in every region of the world, irrespective of factors like income, social support, perceived freedom and national corruption.

This backs up a pile of other similar research. When we remember times when we gave to others we feel better than when remembering times we spent money on ourselves. Giving to others seems to fire up all kinds of reward circuits which genuinely lead to wellbeing. We feel better when we give than when we take for ourselves generally.

Another recent study found that people who  help others out who are in trouble, such as with shopping, child-care or similar help, seem when followed up over a number of years, to suffer lower stress and have more chance of being alive than those who did not help[2]. This study was published in the American Journal of Public Health. What is interesting about this study is that it shows that  helping others increases the health and wellbeing of people in a way that  receiving help  from others does not. This was a study of about 850 people who were followed up over several decades. Those who had given tangible assistance in times of stress or hardship were doing better health-wise. The average age by the end of the study was 71 and by then 16% of the participants had died, and those who had not offered any help were by far the more likely to have died.

Helping others fires reward circuits in our brains [3], it makes us feel good, while doing something for an ulterior motive, such as a financial reward in adults or to get a toy for child, is not as intrinsically rewarding. Indeed recent studies of toddlers under two years old showed that they in fact felt happier when giving treats to others than when receiving treats for themselves. Not only that, they were happier if the gift was costly and they gave up some of their own resources for another person rather than giving a treat at no cost to themselves [4]. Altrusim and happiness seem to be surprisingly interlinked.

We also know this from research with adults. Blood donations decrease when donors begin to be paid for them, for example [5]. When we actively choose to donate money voluntarily similar reward circuits fire up in the brain as when we get a reward for ourselves, such as eating our favourite foods [6]. In fact these same reward circuits light up, but to a lesser extent, when we give money to a cause we agree with, but the giving is  involuntary, such as paying a local tax which might help school-children.

Similarly Harvey James of the University of Missouri analysed robust data from the World Values Survey which showed that people who were less sympathetic to immoral or  unscrupulous acts were  happier than those who seemed less moral [7]. The health effect of their ethical beliefs on their happiness levels was equivalent to a modest increase in income, being married or going to church.

It is I am sure no coincidence that a range of brain areas to do with empathy and understanding other minds light up when we co-operate, as do a range of reward circuits. When people in experiments play a financial reward game, those given the chance to cooperate have increased activity in their empathy circuits, and their reward circuits in their orbitofontal cortices fire most when there is cooperation. We have evolved so that working together is its own reward [8].

Such findings might also make us wonder at how standard economic theories about human nature could be so wrong, particularly the belief that it is innate self-interestedness that is our only real motive.

Some have recently argued that  the advantages of being altruistic, generous or moral might be diminishing somewhat in a contemporary world in which being group-minded might not be as big an advantage as it once was, given how our society might favour more individualistic traits. Our all too real evolved selfish inheritance can lead any of us to be self-interested, greedy and not pull our weight. However some forms of social organisation make this more or less likely, possibly including much in our more monetarised, competitive, status and profit driven contemporary societies.

Research by Henrich and colleagues  [9], [10] showed that the likelihood of humans being generous varies hugely depending on the kind of society we live in and the values that are espoused.  Cultures and societies where there is more equality and social cohesion are the ones in which people are likely to feel more trusting of others and believe that each has responsibility for others [11]. Such societies also tend to have, by available measures, higher levels of overall happiness. It seems that the more we live in a culture which is reasonably egalitarian and values cooperation and mutual dependence, the more people experience higher levels of emotional well-being and are more generous. Something for politicians to learn from here?


[1]        L. B. Aknin, C. P. Barrington-Leigh, E. W. Dunn, J. F. Helliwell, R. Biswas-Diener, I. Kemeza, P. Nyende, C. E. Ashton-James, and M. I. Norton, ‘Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2013.

[2]        M. J. Poulin, S. L. Brown, A. J. Dillard, and D. M. Smith, ‘Giving to Others and the Association Between Stress and Mortality’, American Journal of Public Health, no. 0, pp. e1–e7, 2013.

[3]        J. Moll, R. Zahn, R. de Oliveira-Souza, F. Krueger, and J. Grafman, ‘The neural basis of human moral cognition’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol. 6, no. 10, pp. 799–809, 2005.

[4]        L. B. Aknin, J. K. Hamlin, and E. W. Dunn, ‘Giving Leads to Happiness in Young Children’, PLoS ONE, vol. 7, no. 6, p. e39211, Jun. 2012.

[5]        J. Costa-Font, M. Jofre-Bonet, and S. T. Yen, ‘Not All Incentives Wash Out the Warm Glow: The Case of Blood Donation Revisited’, SSRN eLibrary, Jul. 2011.

[6]        W. T. Harbaugh, U. Mayr, and D. R. Burghart, ‘Neural responses to taxation and voluntary giving reveal motives for charitable donations’, Science, vol. 316, no. 5831, p. 1622, 2007.

[7]        J. James, ‘Is the Just Man a Happy Man? An Empirical Study of the Relationship between Ethics and Subjective Well‐Being’, Kyklos, vol. 64, no. 2, pp. 193–212, May 2011.

[8]        R. Elliott, B. Völlm, A. Drury, S. McKie, P. Richardson, and J. F. William Deakin, ‘Co-operation with another player in a financially rewarded guessing game activates regions implicated in theory of mind’, Social Neuroscience, vol. 1, pp. 385–395, Sep. 2006.

[9]        J. Henrich, J. Ensminger, R. McElreath, A. Barr, C. Barrett, A. Bolyanatz, J. C. Cardenas, M. Gurven, E. Gwako, and N. Henrich, ‘Markets, religion, community size, and the evolution of fairness and punishment’, science, vol. 327, no. 5972, p. 1480, 2010.

[10]      J. Henrich, R. Boyd, S. Bowles, C. Camerer, E. Fehr, H. Gintis, and R. McElreath, ‘In search of homo economicus: behavioral experiments in 15 small-scale societies’, The American Economic Review, vol. 91, no. 2, pp. 73–78, 2001.

[11]      E. M. Uslaner and M. Brown, ‘Inequality, trust, and civic engagement’, American Politics Research, vol. 33, no. 6, pp. 868–894, 2005.

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