A quick google search will turn up article after article listing the positive effects of altruism on mental and physical health. The top cited effects are:
- Lower stress levels / reduced cortisol
- Greater self esteem
- Less depression
- Lower blood pressure
- Longer life
- Greater happiness
Boom! Who doesn’t want more of those effects in their life?
What the research says
The research says those effects are real, in particular the mental health ones.
Nice, but not actually helpful
What’s interesting to me is that people even care about these studies. Who do you know who read a listicle about the top ten ways to be happy, saw “giving to others”, and then immediately made a donation? No one! There are plenty of reasons that people don’t give which have nothing to do with lack of awareness about the benefits of giving. And there are plenty of reasons that people do give which have nothing to do with their own happiness.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence (that I can find) that shows that if you normally don’t give and then you start giving purely for the sake of improving your mental health, that anything in your mental or physical life will change.
It’s not just about the act. It’s about the intention behind the act.
How to get real benefits
Giving is a highly personal act and the benefits are also highly personal. In my experience, there are four different types of giving, and they have varying effects on your wellbeing:
- Giving because you have to (I am obligated to give)
- Giving because you feel like you should (other people are doing it)
- Giving because you want to (I believe giving is a good thing)
- Giving because you feel a moral need to (this action represents my values)
No surprise here: The first two are not on equal footing with the last two. The wellness boost you get from the first two is real, but minimal. The wellness boost from the third is pretty good. But the wellness boost from the last one – that’s where it’s AT! That’s where you want to be!
Note that this has nothing to do with how MUCH you give and everything to do with WHO or WHAT you give to.
Getting to the last stage requires work. You have to identify your values and also find a cause that aligns with those values. But it’s totally worth it.
You have finite time on this earth and finite money to spend. Using that time and money in accordance with your values will maximize your mental health. How do I know this without citing research papers? Because it’s self-evident that doing so allows you to:
- Feel un-conflicted
- Make easier choices
- Address new situations with an established framework that reflects who YOU are
- Pass on your values to your children
- Sleep well at night (seriously)
There are a lot of other items I could add. And interestingly, you could make the same list of benefits for any moral imperative. For example: why you don’t want to lie to others. Or why you don’t eat meat (if you’re vegetarian). Or why you don’t steal your co-worker’s lunch out of the fridge at work.
Seriously, though. It all comes down to the same thing: act in accordance with your values and you will be much better off. I doubt you even needed me to tell you that!