Many people have offered to help others during this crisis: delivering shopping, listening compassionately, giving money to support charities and to help fund NHS projects. Those who do so probably notice how good their efforts make them feel.
That’s not surprising. Numerous studies have found a strong association between helping others and experiencing greater wellbeing. For example, Kathleen Hunter and Margaret Linn at the University of Miami compared older volunteer workers (individuals over 65) with those of similar age and background who were not volunteers. The volunteers had significantly higher life satisfaction scores and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Neal Krause and colleagues at the University of Michigan conducted a nationwide survey of adults 60 years and older. Those who offered informal help to others, such as delivering meals or chauffeuring, had fewer symptoms of depression and reported a greater sense of personal control in their life than non-helpers.
Carolyn Schwartz at the University of Massachusetts asked 2016 members of the Presbyterian Church to fill in questionnaires about their activities, mental wellbeing and physical health. Those who gave help as well as those who received it reported better mental health, but giving help was the more reliable predictor of mental wellbeing.
Helping others is also associated with better physical health. Rachel Piferi and Kathleen Lawler at the University of Tennessee found that individuals who offered social support to others had lower stress levels and blood pressure, as well as increased self-esteem and fewer symptoms of depression.
Stephen Post at Case Western Reserve reviewed a number of studies on the effects of altruism and concluded helping others isn’t merely associated with better mental and physical health; it appears to create those benefits. For example, studies measuring biological markers both before and after engagement in altruistic behaviours show immune-enhancing physiological changes after participants offered time and attention to others.
Volunteering is also associated with longevity. Doug Oman and his team at the Buck Center for Research in Aging in California followed nearly 2000 Californians aged 55 and older. Those who volunteered in two or more organisations were significantly less likely to die during the following five years than non-volunteers, even when age, exercise levels, general health and negative habits such as smoking were taken into account.
Stephanie Brown at the University of Michigan interviewed 423 older married couples about their volunteering habits, then followed them for five years. She, too, found mortality rate was significantly reduced for those who volunteered. She concludes, like Carolyn Schwartz, that giving rather than receiving help is the key factor.