Altruism 01.01.06 Search

An Effective Stress Remedy

Sara Childre
President, Institute of Heart Math

Do acts of kindness and generosity enhance our health, increase our longevity and make us happier? Can heart-directed altruism reduce stress? Research shows when we act in other people’s behalf, we feel better, more secure and experience less stress.

Altruism’s Physiological Basis: Using MRI scans, scientists have identified specific regions of the brain that are very active during deep and compassionate emotional states and determined that neurochemicals factor into altruism.

Institute for Research on Unlimited Love President Stephen Post said of this portion of the brain: "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."

Dr. J. Andrew Armour, a leading neurocardiologist on IHM’s Scientific Advisory Board, found that the heart contains cells that synthesize and release hormones such as epinephrine, also called adrenaline, and dopamine, among others. It was discovered that the heart also secretes oxytocin, commonly referred to as the "love" or "bonding" hormone. Concentrations of oxytocin produced in the heart are as high as those found in the brain.

When you are altruistic – helping someone – your oxytocin level goes up, which helps relieve stress. Altruistic behavior also may trigger the brain’s reward circuitry – the feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins. The hormonal benefits of good deeds, however, depend on the genuine intent of acts of altruism.

Research shows altruistic people are healthier and live longer. In a study that followed over 400 women for 30 years, researchers found 52% of those who did not engage in volunteer work experienced a major illness, compared with only 36% of those who volunteered. In a British poll of volunteers, half of those surveyed said their health had improved over the course of volunteering. One in five said volunteering had even helped them lose weight.

Another large study found a 44% reduction in early death among those who volunteered – more significant even than exercising four times a week. An investigation conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found older people who are helpful to others reduce their risk of dying by nearly 60% compared to peers who provide neither practical help nor emotional support to relatives, neighbors or friends.

Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.
– James Matthew Barrie

According to an article published in 2009 in the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science at Dartmouth University, "Altruism promotes deeper positive social integration, distraction from self-preoccupation, enhanced meaning and purpose, a more active lifestyle, and the presence of positive emotions such as kindness that displace harmful negative emotional states. Thus, it is entirely possible to assert that altruism enhances mental and physical health."

Cultivate Altruism with HeartMath. The heart-focused techniques of the HeartMath System help people align themselves more fully with core values and to actualize more care and compassion in their lives. Practicing these tools also has been linked to beneficial changes in hormones that profoundly affect our health, happiness and longevity and increase our resilience for dealing with today’s challenges. By integrating HeartMath practices in your life, you can reduce your stress and increase your generosity from the heart. The Free Services section of IHM’s Web site offers Tools for Well-Being for adults and children of all ages. (Audio available also).

Benefits of Altruism

Promotes emotional, physical, mental and spiritual health.

Boosts your self-esteem and confidence.

Increases resilience and longevity.

Helps you be more accepting of gifts and experiencing appreciation.

Provides a way to express your feelings about people or issues.

Builds connections and relationships with others.

Helps you increase knowledge about causes and issues for which you are altruistic.

Raises your consciousness about the world around you.

Important Note: It is equally important to take care of yourself as you care for others and to give from a sense of heart care rather than duty. If we consistently give out of a sense of overcare, we can find ourselves feeling resigned and burned out. Use your heart intelligence for heart-balanced altruism.

Editor’s note: This IHM revised newsletter article, originally published in 2006, remains equally valid in 2011.

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