The Health Benefits of Altruism


This blog post was originally published on October 7, 2014.

It takes on many forms: paying it forward, peer-to-peer support, volunteering, being there for a friend or partner. Altruism, the concern for well-being of others, is a powerful part of overall wellness. Doing things for other people can help build relationships and bring meaning to life. And, if that’s not awesome enough, altruistic actions can also have health benefits! Though the spirit of altruism is helping others, it has been shown that altruistic actions have an impact both on others and the person doing altruistic things.

Here are some of the health and wellness benefits of altruism:

  • Increases satisfaction and self-esteem

On a psychological level, doing things for other people through service and volunteering has been shown to be associated with greater positive feelings, well-being, and overall satisfaction. In a study by Sawyer and colleagues, most students surveyed who volunteered for a peer education program found it a valuable activity, and nearly half of those surveyed reported increased self-esteem as a result of participating in the program.

 

  • Deepens knowledge

Studies of peer education – or programs where a group is taught how to offer education and support to those in similar situations (ex: college students who are trained to provide health education to other students) – show a wide array of benefits to both the educators themselves, and the persons they are educating. In one study, peer educators were found to have increased their own health and wellness knowledge, with 43% adopting healthier behaviors themselves. Interestingly, the same study also found that some (20%) students participating in peer education programs also changed their career direction as a result of participating in the program.

 

  • Enhances cultural acuity

By being of service to others and advocating for their needs, activities like peer support and volunteerism can help build awareness and perspective. In the study by Sawyer et al, 20% of those participating in peer education programs were more open to students’ behaviors and opinions. Altruistic activities can challenge one to think about issues that another person or group is facing, and increase empathy as a result –important components of cultural wellness.

 

  • Acts as a powerful motivator for individual and population-level behavior change

Mind experiment: pick a health behavior –anything from vaccination, to screening, or smoking cessation. Now think about the following questions: do you want to do this behavior for yourself? How about committing to the health behavior for the benefit of others (partners, family, friends, community members)?

For many behaviors, the desire to perform or commit to a given behavior can be based on a mix of personal versus interpersonal motivations. In a personal example, I recently thought about hand-washing in my house. Don’t get me wrong: I definitely appreciate the importance of hand washing! But, when I thought about it, the desire to wash my hands to keep my partner healthy was as much, or possibly more, of a motivator for me than me washing my hands for my own health’s sake. In yet another example, with behaviors like getting the flu shot each year, it can often be very powerful to consider the benefits both for oneself (i.e., you are less likely to get the flu), and to others (i.e., it reduces flu transmission to the population).  All in all, altruistic reasons for adopting healthy behaviors can be extremely powerful – sometimes more so than the reasons you have for adopting change just to help yourself.

 

Getting involved

 Interested in getting involved in service and volunteering programs on the UNC campus? There are some fantastic service opportunities through the Carolina Center for Public Service, one of Student Wellness’ peer groups, or Student Wellness’ interpersonal violence prevention trainings. Be sure to check out our recent Healthy Heels blog post on being a more conscious volunteer.

It’s important to note that the health benefits of altruistic actions are not limited to formal service and volunteering opportunities. Every day, smaller actions that consider other people’s needs and feelings or help others can also have a powerful impact for oneself and for campus culture.

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