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Want better health, want to be more optimistic? This research points to loving your neighbor.

"You can have better health, more optimism, enjoy life more, be happier!" Just writing like that makes me feel insincere. But, after reading these research papers, I can say without a hint of salesman that loving your neighbor does bring some amazing benefits.

Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.

Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!

Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.

-Psalm 119:35-37

What Science Is Saying About Altruism And Happiness

It turns out that science is proving that when we follow God's command to love our neighbors, we could be blessed with pretty amazing mental and physical benefits.

In a study performed by Midlarsky and Kahana, they found an association between altruism – that is, voluntary behavior that is “motivated by concern for the welfare of others, rather than by the anticipation of rewards” – and improved morale, self-esteem, positive effect, and well-being.

Another study performed by Schwartz et al. found that “Giving help was more significantly associated with better mental health than was receiving help.”

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Phillipians 2:3-4

Could it be that our selfish desires cause unhappiness even when they are fulfilled, while altruistic desires and actions make us happy? It may well be that when Paul tells us to consider others more important than ourselves (Philippians 2), he is actually wanting what is the best for us.

Health Benefits Proven

For Seniors, there turns out to be quite a big correlation between volunteering and health:

“Moderate amounts of volunteerism were associated with lower risk of death.” “The researchers added that [the] 69% who reported volunteering did so through a religious organization, but they found no relation between reduced risk of mortality and religious service attendance. Volunteering, rather than its religious context, explained the effect.” -Musick et al.

“Those who volunteered for two or more organizations experienced a 63% lower likelihood of dying during the study period that did non-volunteers.” -Oman et al.

The Reasons Why

So, why does this effect seem to be present in those who volunteer or act with altruistic motives?

“Altruistic emotions can gain dominance over anxiety and fear, turning off the fight-flight response. Immediate and unspecified physiological changes may occur as a result of volunteering and helping others, leading to the so-called ‘helper’s high’.” –Luks, 1988

A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed. –Proverbs 11:25

“Two-thirds of helpers report a distinct physical sensation associated with helping; about half report that they experienced a “high” feeling, whereas 43% felt stronger and more energetic, 28% felt warm, 22% felt calmer and less depressed, 21% experienced greater self-worth, and 13% experienced fewer aches and pains.” -Luks, 1988

Connecting the Dots

Do you ever look around your house at your appliances, your furniture, in your fridge, and in your closet, evaluating whether your possessions make you happy or not? Maybe there are ways to increase our happiness through our purchases and eating habits. Imagine how you might get those altruistic benefits if you were able to look around your house and see items that were connected to an altruistic choice. You might be much happier with a wardrobe of used clothes than one with designer brands. You could be more satisfied with something old than something new.

In the past, I thought I only had a few opportunities each day for loving my neighbor, but now I recognize that they are numerous. Give it a try! Make purchases with your neighbor (near and far) mind and you will engage your altruistic side. Who knows, you may find yourself happier than you’ve been in a long time.

*If you want to see any of these quotes or citations for yourself, check out the paper where I found them:

Midlarsky, E., & Kahana, E. (1994). Altruism in later life. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Schwartz, C., Meisenhelder, J. B., Ma, Y., & Reed, G. (2003). Altruistic social interest behaviors are associated with better mental health. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 778-785

Musick, M.S., & Wilson, J. (2003). Volunteering and depression: The role of physchological and social resources in different age groups. Social Science & Medicine, 56, 259-269

Musick, M.S., Herzog, A. R., & House, J.S. (1999). Volunteering and mortality among older adults: Findings from a national sample. Journals of Gerontology Series B-Psychological Sciences Social Sciences, 54(3), S173-S180

Oman, D. Throesen, C.E., & McMahon, K. (1999). Volunteerism and mortality among the community-dwelling elderly. Journal of Health Psychology, 4, 301-316

Oman, D., & Reed, D. (1998). Religion and mortality among community-dwelling elderly. American Journal of Public Health, 88, 1469-1476

Luks, A. (1988, October). Helper's high: Volunteering makes people feel good, physically and emotionally. And like "runner's calm" it's probably good for your health. Psychology Today, 22(10), 34-42


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