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Studies on love and kindness get better with age

By Stephen G. Post, February 1st, 2004

On the inside cover of a copy of The Book of Common Prayer, given to me two decades ago by the Rev. William B. Eddy of Tarrytown, N.Y., is an accumulating memorial list of people I have known as models of kindness and generosity over the course of my life. It is a list of 13 people who have all died and who, by all accounts, remained generous even in their final days, if still lucid of mind. From time to time, I reflect on the lives of these good people, and I recall that each of them took joy in being consistently generous and affirming all others, even in difficult moments when they had to solemnly confront destructive or unjust behaviors.

For me, their lives are proof that giving to others without thinking about the self is both vital and fulfilling. This kind of giving constitutes genius in the spiritual, or moral, domain. They understood that happiness is not to be found in getting, but in giving, and they taught by example that the greatest happiness is found not in what you do for yourself, but in what you do for others. Have you noticed the warm glow in your heart that comes when you act kindly? There are those on my list who, in their life's journey, came to a point of total despair as selfish pursuits ran dry. It was then that they turned to generosity and found that warm glow, a buoyant joy and personal proof that "'Tis more blessed to give than to receive" - and they were uplifted.

But is it really more blessed to give than to receive, scientifically speaking? Do benevolent people experience higher levels of mental well-being? Are they healthier, and do they live longer? Increasingly, mainstream scientists are studying kindly, charitable interest in others, and the behaviors that go along with it, to find out whether there are associated health benefits.

Research on kindness and volunteerism in relation to health is thought to have begun in 1980 with a study that compared volunteer workers and non-volunteers who were 65 or older. Researchers Kathleen Hunter and Margaret Linn of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Miami found volunteers were significantly higher in life satisfaction and will to live, and they had fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. While Hunter and Linn acknowledged that no cause-and-effect relationship could be formally determined - raising the question of whether life satisfaction gave rise to volunteerism or vice versa - they did indicate that the elderly volunteers themselves believed that their volunteer activities changed their lives for the better.

Ten years later, Elizabeth Midlarsky, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College at Columbia University who studies altruism and religiousness through the lifespan, proposed five reasons as to why altruistic behavior might benefit the elderly: enhanced social integration, distraction from the giver's own problems, enhanced meaningfulness, an increased perception of self-efficacy and competence, and an improved mood or a more physically active lifestyle. In 1994, Midlarsky and Eva Kahana, chair of the department of sociology and director of the Elderly Care Research Center at Case Western Reserve University, published Altruism in Later Life. The book had the results from their empirical study of the productive contributions of older adults through helping, and revealed that helping behavior was associated with improved morale, self-esteem and well-being.

In 1999, Marc Musick, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, reported in the Journal of Gerontology that, according to his research on elderly volunteers, "simply adding the volunteering role was protective of mortality." Also that year, Doug Oman, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, studied more than 2,000 elderly residents in Marin County, Calif., who had first been studied in 1990 or 1991. He found that those who volunteered for two or more organizations were 63 percent less likely to die during the study period than those who did not volunteer at all.

Oman then added controls - age, gender, number of chronic conditions, physical mobility, exercise, self-rated general health, health habits (smoking), social support (marital status and religious attendance) and psychological status (depressive symptoms) - and still the volunteers were 44 percent less likely to die during the time of the study than non-volunteers. As it turns out, the likelihood of death during this period was more affected by helpfulness than it was by physical mobility, regular exercise or weekly attendance at religious services. "If the present results are sustained," Oman and his colleagues concluded, "then voluntariness has the potential to add not only quality but also length to the lives of older individuals worldwide."

Neal Krause, a research scientist, and his colleagues at the University of Michigan's Institute of Gerontology released a cross-cultural study on aging in 1999, examining the relationship between religion, helping and health. In a sample of about 2,000 elderly people in Japan, they found that those who provided more assistance to others were significantly more likely to indicate their physical health was better.

Today, researchers are adept at finding a relationship between giving help and the health of the giver. A study by Carolyn Schwartz of the Division of Preventative and Behavioral Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School looked at members of the Presbyterian Church throughout the United States and, while she found no association between giving or receiving help and physical functioning, there was a stronger relationship between better mental health and giving help than between mental health and receiving help. In Psychosomotic Medicine she wrote, "helping others is associated with higher levels of mental health, above and beyond the benefits of receiving help and other known psychospiritual, stress and demographic factors."

Stephanie Brown, a psychologist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, reported in Psychological Science that she found an association between longevity and giving help, but no association between longevity and receiving help. She concluded that those who provided no instrumental or emotional support to others were more than twice as likely to die during the course of the five-year study than people who helped spouses, friends, relatives and neighbors. And in his volume, Aging Well, Dr. George E. Vaillant, a Harvard University research psychiatrist who drew from more than five decades of data from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, reports that helping behavior focused on others is among the strongest predictors of health and longevity.

Still, not everyone whose name appears on the inside cover of my copy of The Book of Common Prayer lived an especially long life, and they all had their eventual health issues. But they did not live the way they did to prove a connection between giving and a longer life or better health; they were generous and kind in order to help other human beings. They had a deep sense of common humanity and they all had a certain happiness about them - a sort of gaiety that comes with a life well-lived and rightly inspired.

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