Love—or at least marriage—offers a host of benefits, including fewer doctor’s visits; shorter hospital stays; less depression, anxiety, and substance abuse; lower blood pressure; faster healing; better pain control and stress management; and a longer life.
However, altruism also provides many benefits.
What is altruism?
Altruism is a form of unselfish (or agape) love where participants are willing to promote someone else’s welfare, even if it comes at a cost.
What are the benefits of altruism?
Researchers have found physical and mental benefits to altruistic behavior, such as contributing to a charity or volunteering.
These benefits include:
Happiness. The performance of altruistic acts release endorphins that activate the parts of our brains associated with trust, pleasure, and social connection. Researchers have found evidence that altruistic behavior also may trigger feel-good chemicals, such as dopamine and endorphins.
Generosity. Spending money, effort or time on others makes us happier than doing the same for ourselves, thus setting up a feedback loop that encourages more generosity.
Stress reduction. Scientists discovered that when you are altruistic, your oxytocin level increases, which helps relieve stress.
Positive outlook. Performing altruistic acts, such as helping others in need, helps people realize how lucky they are.
Depression. There is evidence that moderate altruistic behavior, such as volunteering, changes the brain to reduce the risk of depression.
Physical health. Altruism increases physical health. One study found that 52% of those who did not volunteer experienced a major illness, but only 36% of volunteers did.
Mental health. Studies have shown that giving help is more positively associated with better mental health than receiving it.
Socialization. Altruistic behavior builds connections and relationships with others, whether you donate online, volunteer or hold the door for a stranger.
Self-esteem. Although the study only included teens, it found that those who engaged in altruistic behavior had a higher self-esteem than those who didn’t.
Better marriages. Research indicates a link between altruism and better marriages, but they’re unsure whether altruism results in better marriages or better marriages encourage people to become more altruistic.
Longevity. Research conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found that helpful older people reduced their risk of dying by nearly 60% compared to peers who don’t offer practical help or emotional support. Another study shows a 44% reduction in early death among people who volunteer.
Interestingly enough, altruistic values and empathy did not provide the same benefits as altruistic behavior. Just as occurred with studies on love, action provided more benefits than thoughts or attitudes.
Several studies also noted that intent had to be present for an action to be truly altruistic.
Another factor is that all the research indicated that the level of altruistic behavior affected benefits. Those with extended duration or high intensity of altruistic behavior experienced negative effects.
How to practice altruistic love
The range of altruistic behavior that provided benefits included giving money to a charity, opening a door for someone, working with the disabled, and volunteering in a soup kitchen.
Sugar Hill Retirement Community also has a few ideas to help you make a difference.
Other suggestions include:
- taking a meal (or a gift card for a meal) to a family with a new baby or someone who is ill
- extending the time on someone's parking meter
- paying a toll
- offering to babysit for a new mother or father
- providing respite to a caregiver who needs a short break to recharge
Who is the most altruistic?
Several studies show that older people are more altruistic—engaging in more altruistic behavior and more likely to hold altruistic values—than other age groups. “These studies suggest that older adults not only report valuing contributions to the public good more highly but also are more likely to behave altruistically than younger adults,” research concludes.