Researcher: Giving Can Save Your Life

No wonder Santa Claus just seems to go on forever. According to new research out of the University of Michigan, giving can actually help you live longer.

The research, based on 423 older couples who were studied for five years, lends new credence to that old cliché, "Tis better to give than to receive."

"Our results strongly suggest that giving makes a difference in terms of health," says psychologist Stephanie Brown of the university's Institute for Social Research.

The study found that older people who lend a hand to friends, neighbors or relatives, even if it amounts to little more than helping out around the house, reduce their risk of dying by nearly 60 percent compared to those who never offer any help to anyone else.

But Brown admits she doesn't have a tidy answer for why giving of yourself might extend your life span.

Giving and Feeling Good

"One possibility is that helping others produces positive emotions, which in turn protects us against the negative effects of cardiovascular stress," she says. That dovetails with other research at the University of Michigan showing that positive emotions can actually speed the recovery from cardiovascular illnesses.

Another possibility is that giving just makes us feel good. Robert Cialdini, a psychologist at Arizona State University, calls it "helper's high."

It may also be that the simple act of giving strengthens our relationships with others, which many regard as one key to healthy living.

Whatever the cause, Brown says the message is pretty clear. Giving has what Cialdini calls an "egoistic benefit."

To carry out her project, Brown relied on data collected as part of a broader study at her university of how older people cope with the inevitable changes brought on by the aging process.

Some 423 couples (all the men were at least 65 years old) were interviewed first in 1987, and then followed for five years. During that period 134 of the participants died.

In the first interview the couples were asked a wide range of questions dealing with such things as personal health, physical fitness, and their relationship with others. They were also asked a rather pointed question about whether they gave of themselves to others at least once during the preceding year. Did they run an errand for someone, or mow the lawn for a sick neighbor?

Brown found that 75 percent of the men and 72 percent of the women said they had provided some help without payment to friends, relatives or neighbors during the past year.

Not Giving Shortens Life

But what may be more astonishing is the fact that one out of four said they had done nothing to help anyone else during the entire year. Even a simple act like picking up their neighbor's newspaper would have allowed them to answer in the affirmative.

Brown says she doesn't know why that many admitted they did nothing for anyone else for the entire year.

That might suggest that some people are so wrapped up in themselves, or suffering from such bad health, that they're going to die earlier than they might have, regardless of whether or not they gave anything to anyone else. But Brown says she took precautions to ensure that the results of her study were not distorted by such things as personal health.

Psychologists call the process "control," and it is a statistical procedure used to reduce the chances that a variable, like personal health, might skew the results.

"We measured a variety of indicators of health, including their self-rated health, their functional health, like whether they could get out of bed or climb stairs," she says. "We also looked at their health behavior like exercise, drinking and smoking, as well as their mental health, such as depression and anxiety."

That allowed her to reduce the impact on the study of people who were too sick, or too depressed, to give of themselves.

The resulting data set zeroed in on the effect of giving, she says.

And Brown says the evidence showed that people who gave nothing were twice as likely to die as people who gave at least something.

Giving Therapy

She's the first to admit that lots more research needs to be done before her findings can be fully embraced, but if she's right, it could turn some forms of therapy upside down.

For example, one technique used to help people recover from a devastating illness is to put them in contact with others to show them that they are not alone, and they have the support of friends and acquaintances.

That social contact has long been thought to be very beneficial in the recovery process.

But if Brown is right, that puts the emphasis on the wrong thing. It isn't help from others that is so beneficial. It's the other way around. Helping someone else may be the best therapy of all.

She points out that people with a "fighting spirit" seem to have a better chance of recovering from cancer. Maybe that takes away the feeling of helplessness that makes recovery so much more difficult.

And maybe, Brown's research suggests, if someone who is ailing can help someone else, their recovery will come even quicker. A "giving spirit" may work wonders.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.