Healthy Living Through Altruism

It is no secret that volunteering is good for your health, but, now, it is official: studies have shown that philanthropic efforts boost cardiovascular health. In fact, many health professionals are thinking about ‘prescribing’ it along with other preventative health measures, such as eating healthily and exercising regularly. Eric Kim, a research fellow at Harvard School of Public Health, has focused his work on philanthropic efforts and their effects on health.

Kim was inspired by results of past studies, which have shown that volunteering is linked to lower weight and lower levels of depression. He hypothesized that these results were due to to a sense of purpose in those who volunteered. When people feel like their lives extend beyond simply just living on a day-to-day basis, they tend to take better care of themselves. Kim decided to do his own research to figure out how the results of past studies could be used in the medical world.

In his work, Kim and a colleague tracked a large number of Americans over middle age, a portion of whom volunteered on a regular basis. After a couple of years, it was evident that the individuals who volunteered made time to take better care of themselves than the ones who did not. They were more likely to go to the doctor for regular checkups, for example, and spent less time in the hospital overall.

This aligns perfectly with the popular idea that one cannot take care of others if he or she does not take care of the self first. Volunteers, Kim has found, want to be able to take care of others, so it makes sense that they are more likely to take care of themselves. This decreases healthcare costs for individuals without costing the healthcare industry more money.

Overall, volunteering is good for heart health. That cannot be contested. However, it turns out that is not the entire story. Kim found that health is only truly improved if one volunteers for the right reasons. A person cannot volunteer, say, to escape from problems, or solely to improve his or her own health. Rather, there has to be altruism involved, or else it is not clear if health will be affected at all.

Philanthropic effort is not difficult, but altruism, selfless concern for others, involves some work. If such philanthropy was prescribed along with medication for cardiovascular issues, and these altruistic values instilled early in life, the healthcare industry could be turned around completely.

To read more about Kim’s work and findings, check out this article in The Atlantic.

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