The website inCharacter.org has an interview with Dr. Stephen G. Post, author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving, and president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. (Call me a cynic, but the name “Institute for Research on Unlimited Love” does not instil in me a lot of confidence; it sounds like a hippie farm or a horrific Orwellian government office.) An excerpt:
IC: What about altruism and longevity?
POST: A remarkable fact is that giving, even in later years, can delay death. The impact of giving is just as significant as not smoking and avoiding obesity. A 2005 study conducted by Alex Harris and Carl Thoresen of Stanford University found that frequent volunteering is strongly linked to later mortality. Called the Longitudinal Study on Aging, it followed more than 7,500 older people for six years. Volunteering was a powerful protector of mental and physical health. Another study, a 1992 survey of older people by Neal Krause of the University of Michigan found that helping others lowers depression. Krause found that, for older men, ten years of volunteering can dramatically slash mortality rates. Another researcher, Doug Oman and his colleagues did a study involving 2,025 older residents of California and found that those who volunteered had a 44 percent reduction in mortality-and those who volunteered for two or more organizations had an astonishing 63 percent lower mortality rate than non-volunteers. If you are an older adult, I have one recommendation: volunteer!
I like that research like this is being done. As with any study like this you have to be careful not to mistake correlation with causation, but I would guess that these studies at least attempted to control for this, and I would guess that there is SOME element of volunteerism actually causing longer life. Serving others – performing a use for society – gives a person purpose and a drive to keep living.
Studies like this – and like the marriage study I blogged about a few months ago – have helped me understand a passage from Conjugial Love that confused me the first time I read it. Conjugial Love n. 130 says,
In brief summary, [wisdom of life] is this: to flee evils because they are harmful to the soul, harmful to the civil state, and harmful to the body, and to do good things because they are of benefit to the soul, to the civil state, and to the body.
The soul and the civil state made sense – the body, not so much. But more and more research confirms this: things like anger and deceit are harmful to the body, whereas things like doing good are beneficial to the body. Research like this contributes directly to “wisdom of life” in that it shows just how evil is bad for the body and good is good for it.
That said, it seems like there must be a point where over-volunteering becomes a health risk, rather than a benefit. I’ve talked to several people who have had doctors tell them that for the sake of their health, they have to stop doing so much. And I think over-volunteering is often tied with the falsity that we have to do enough good works to merit heaven (Swedenborg has a great description of people in the spiritual world who fell into this fallacy in Arcana Coelestia n. 1110). I’d like to see research into where that healthy balance is and how people can find it.