Altruism: A Remedy for Stress
Will acts of kindness and generosity enhance our health, increase our longevity and make us happier? I think so. Do you?
Could heart-directed altruism be such a remedy? When we act on behalf of other people, the research is pretty clear on this: We will feel better and more secure and experience less stress.
Does altruism have a physiological basis? Using MRI scans, scientists have identified specific regions of the brain that are very active during those times when we are experiencing deeply and compassionate emotions.
Stephen Post, head of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, says, “This is the care-and-connection part of the brain. States of joy and delight come from giving to others. It doesn’t come from any dry action, where the act is out of duty in the narrowest sense.” Post is referring to heartfelt giving. Neurochemicals also enter into this picture of altruism. A recent study has identified high levels of the hormone, oxytocin, in people who are very charitable toward others.
That’s the brain, but what about the heart? Dr. J. Andrew Armour, a leading neurocardiologist who sits on HeartMath Institute’s Scientific Advisory Board, has found the heart contains cells that synthesize and release hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and dopamine, among others. It was discovered that the heart too secretes oxytocin, commonly referred to as the “love” or “bonding” hormone. Remarkably, concentrations of oxytocin produced in the heart are as high as those found in the brain. When you are altruistic – lending a helping hand – your oxytocin level goes up, which helps relieve your stress. Altruistic behavior also may trigger the brain’s reward circuitry – the feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins. However, the hormonal benefits of the good deed depend on the genuine intent of the act of altruism.
Research shows that altruistic people are healthier and may even live longer. According to an American Psychological Association study published in 2011, “People who volunteer may live longer than those who don’t, as long as their reasons for volunteering are to help others rather than themselves.”
Conversely, other studies have found a reduction in early death among those who volunteered. Stephen G. Post, Ph.D, one of the top researchers in this area over the last decade and a half, agrees. Last year, he wrote in his report, It’s Good to be Good, “It is safely confirmed that a loving and helpful life is more likely to be a happier, healthier, longer one.”
There are a great many methods and practices that can help people cultivate a deeper and more genuine sense of altruism. At HeartMath, we have a tool called the Heart Coherence Technique that we designed to help people align more fully with their core values and actualize greater care and compassion in their daily lives. More generally, HeartMath’s research and tracking indicates practicing its emotion self-regulation tools has been linked to beneficial changes in hormones that profoundly affect health, happiness and longevity. HeartMath Institute’s researchers theorize that when people integrate any heart-coherence practices into their daily lives, it can help reduce stress.
Personally, I believe such practices contribute to a purer sense of generosity in the heart.
My advice is to balance giving to others with taking care of you. It is equally important to give from a sense of heart caring rather than duty. Consistently giving from an emotion such as overcare could leave us feeling resigned and burned out. I find that relying on heart intelligence to achieve heart-balanced altruism is truly a best practice.