The science is in – doing good is good for you

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The science is most definitely in – doing good is very good for your mind and body. In fact, being kind and helpful to others has been found to be more effective than the latest wonder drug, vitamin or super food… not least because it’s completely free and accessible to everyone. And the implications are much bigger than the individual, as the positive effects of altruism are spread through social connections, creating an ever-widening positive feedback loop in society.

Volunteering for social good has traditionally been something that we do as individuals, and while some of us manage to scrape together the time to ‘give back’ regularly, for many people I know the common refrain is “something I’d really like to do when I get some more time”. But, what if the positive effects of doing good (and related positive thinking and emotional intelligence skills) could be harnessed in the workplace as well as in our personal lives? In my opinion, this is a triple whammy as there are benefits for individual wellbeing and personal development; organisations get to create meaningful impact through employee engagement to complement existing CSR programs; and communities benefit directly through the skills and support donated to the not-for-profit sector.

What the Science Tells Us

Why is altruism good for us? The latest research into the brain-body connection gives us some insights… Lets start with a striking study on the effects of stress on the mind and body, explained in this TED talk by Kelly McGonigal; “ How to Make Stress your Friend”.

The research involved a longitudinal study of almost 30,000 people in the US, and found that, as expected, people who reported that they experienced a high and sustained level of stress had an increased (43%) risk of dying over the time period studied. But,this was only true if those people believed that stress was harmful. In people who had been told or who already believed that stress was a helpful bodily response to the challenge they were facing, there was no more increased risk of dying than those who experienced little stress. In fact, people with a positive mindset about stress had less overall risk than people who experienced relatively low levels of stress, but still believed it was bad for them.

The research by McGonigal and her team helps to strengthen one of the central themes of the positive psychology movement; that what we consciously think and believe can influence our biology, in this case our bodily reaction to stress.

But how does this research link to the power of altruism? Stay with me…

A similar research project on the effects of stress and longevity also incorporated a measure of the amount of time people spent caring for, or otherwise helping other people. The results were very clear.

The researchers found that there was a 30% increased risk of death for each stressful event that occurred in people’s lives. But here’s the kicker – the risk was completely eliminated if the individual had provided help to others in the past year. The findings suggested that stress did not predict mortality risk among individuals who provided help to others in the past year, but did predict mortality among those who didn’t provide help to others. The researchers concluded that:

Helping others predicted reduced mortality specifically by buffering the association between stress and mortality.

This research is backed up by a number of other studies linking caring and volunteerism with increased wellbeing (see here and here). But how exactly does this happen?

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Oxytocin – the answer to everything?

Part of the answer may be in the much hyped ‘cuddle hormone’, oxytocin.

Over the past few years in the popular science press there has been an explosion of interest in the role of oxytocin in increasing levels of empathy, strengthening social connections, maternal bonding, childbirth and breastfeeding (although you may, like me, have a poorer view of the hormone if you’ve had it forcibly pumped into your bloodstream to induce intense and painful labour contractions!). Lab tests have found that increased oxytocin levels make people more generous, more trusting, and more social. And in turn, positive social interactions cause an increase in the amount of oxytocin produced in the body (e.g. cuddling).

But, as Kelly McGonigal explains in her talk, oxytocin is also a stress hormone. It is a neuropeptide released by the pituitary gland as part of the stress response that motivates people to seek support and connect with others, and also notice others who may be struggling.

And, apart from its effects in modulating the emotional part of the brain, oxytocin also acts positively on the body. It counters the negative effects of cortisol and adrenaline produced in the initial “fight or flight” stress response that tightens blood vessels, raises the heart rate and suppresses the immune system. Oxytocin is a natural anti-inflammatory, so it actually helps to protect the cardio-vascular system from stress by keeping the blood vessels relaxed, and helps heart cells regenerate and heal from stress-induced damage.

The Vagus Nerve

Oxytocin may be the go-to wonder hormone in the scientific pursuit of health and wellbeing these days, but another part of the puzzle could be the vagus nerve. This nerve helps to regulate heart rate and is a central part of the social and emotional system. It also happens to be one of the main pathways for oxytocin distribution from the brain to the body,. The vagus nerve runs all the way from the brain to the stomach, branching out and connecting to major organs along the way like a sensory super-highway. There is a known association between the strength of the vagus nerve, which can be measured as ‘vagal tone’ and people who are better at regulating their emotions.

Researchers in this study found that there was an “upward spiral” of positive physical health where the vagus nerve was able to be further strengthened in a group participants using loving kindness meditation compared to a control group who did not meditate. The meditation was found to cultivate positive emotions through increased feelings of compassion and goodwill towards themselves and others, which caused an increase in participants reported social connections that in turn strengthened vagal tone, as measured at the start and end of the 6-week study. Participants who did not do the meditation did not show any increase in vagal tone over the study period. As participants with a higher vagal tone at the start of the study were found to be experiencing a steeper increase in positive emotion and social connection, there was a clear connection between vagal tone and the ability of people to cultivate positive social connections and so increase their overall wellbeing.

As the author of the study, Barbara Frederickson explains:

The daily moments of connection that people feel with others emerge as the tiny engines that drive the upward spiral between positivity and health.

Wow, this is amazing stuff, but wait, there’s more…

The Benefits of ‘Beefing-up’ the Pre-frontal Cortex

Willoughby Britton explains in her TEDx talk that the pre-frontal cortex of our brains, which is responsible for reasoning, decision-making, memory and most importantly, attention, modulates our main ‘emotional’ part of the brain, called the limbic system, sometimes termed the “monkey brain”. In fact, one of the reasons teenagers are often described as ‘scattered’ and ‘emotionally reactive’ is that their pre-frontal cortex is not yet developed as well as their limbic brain systems. Furthermore, brain scans have shown that a weak pre-frontal cortex is a factor in many mental health disorders.

The good news is that there are things we can do to strengthen the pre-frontal cortex like a muscle, particularly in training our attention through practices such as meditation, or even learning new skills such as juggling and other activities that require focused attention. These practices have been shown to make it easier to control our emotional impulses and distracted thoughts that take us away from the present moment and which have been linked to overall unhappiness.

The Change We Want to Be

Putting these findings together, not only is the research clear that there is a link between altruism and wellbeing, but it appears that we have a lot of control over our biological response to stress, and our long-term wellbeing, through what we THINK, how we FEEL and what we DO. We have the innate ability to strengthen the functions in our body that promote healing by positive thoughts, feelings and actions; just as on the flip side less positive social connections and stress have been shown to increase the production of biological functions that cause negative health effects on the body.

Advances in the understanding of neuroplasticity show that training our mental habits of thought can modify neural networks, including those that regulate our emotions, which have been shown to have such a strong link with physical wellbeing. As Willoughby Britton explains:

“Happiness is not about getting what you want, it comes from the mental habits that you cultivate most and practice from moment to moment. Know what they are and make sure they are ones that you want to be practicing. Through conscious awareness and practice of positive mental habits we can become the people we admire, and in the words of Gandhi: ‘We can become the change we want to see in the world’.”

But in case you thought it was way too easy – just go out and do good deeds and you’ll be skipping about in your 90s – there is a caveat: motives matter. Yes, people who engage in volunteerism live longer than people who do not spend time helping others, but only if their reasons for volunteering are altruistic rather than self-serving. While research by Sarah Konrath of the University of Michigan replicated prior work to show a strong positive correlation between volunteering and lower mortality risk, this was only found to be true if the reasons for volunteering were totally altruistic. In fact, those who volunteered for self-oriented reasons had a similar mortality risk to people who did not volunteer at all.

Benefits in the workplace

Harnessing the use of the positive mindset in the stress response, and the positive effects of the compassion/altruism mindset on wellbeing, could be a major opportunity in the workplace. A recent study by the Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) found that: “corporate volunteering also improves employee satisfaction, retention and engagement”.

Existing personal development programs in companies could incorporate some of the positive mindset and attention training strategies identified in the research to offset the predominantly negative employee response to stress, and develop more compassionate, engaged and healthier employees through targeted volunteering programs. It may also be useful for employees to broaden their perspective outside of their usual corporate or technical spaces, and develop skills they may not be able to work on in their usual roles.

Investing in community projects by implementing corporate volunteering programs is a great way for public and private organisations to complement their existing corporate social responsibility programs. Importantly, there would be significant flow-on effects to not-for-profit organisations, which would benefit from the technical expertise and passion of professional employees looking to make a difference for a social benefit.

And personally…

Having just quit my stable, safe and well-paid job to try to find more meaning in my own work, the thing that stayed with me during my meanderings through the research was at the end of Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk, when she was asked this question by TED curator Chris Anderson:

So, if one is faced with a choice between a low stress job and a high stress job, it really doesn’t matter which one you take? It’s equally wise to accept the higher stress role if you think you can handle it?

She responds:

One thing we know for certain is that chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. And so I would say that’s really the best way to make decisions, is go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.

Amen to that.


Melanie Butcher has recently left a successful career as a geologist to follow her passion for writing about science and social issues. She is a freelance writer and editor for The Social Deck. Connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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