A recent study by Michael Poulin and colleagues in the American Journal of Public Health looks at the impact that giving to others can have on mortality. In particular, this study focused on how giving to others might impact the increased mortality associated with stressful life events.
It has been repeatedly shown that socially isolated individuals have substantially increased risks of mortality and mobility. In fact, the magnitude of social isolation’s impact was comparable to the strength of the associations between poor health outcomes and high blood pressure, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle.
Yet the reasons for the better health outcomes for individuals with more social connections have remained unclear. One popular hypothesis has been that social support of friends and loved ones serve as a social buffer against some negative effects of life events. That is, this theory suggests that benefits come from receiving support from others in a social network. However, research has not consistently supported this hypothesis, leading one review of the research testing this hypothesis to conclude that the relationship between social support and health outcomes “may not be considered significant or generalizable.”
This lack of a conclusive relationship between receiving social support and positive health outcomes has led researchers to look at the other side of social interactions: providing assistance and support to others in a social network. Volunteering has been shown to predict greater self-rated health and longevity, and providing aid to a partner in a relationship has been shown to reduce morbidity and mortality.
The study aimed to examine whether providing support to others served as a buffer against the stress of negative life events. To research this question, the authors examined data from 846 individuals with an average age of 71 years in the Detroit, Michigan, area. Among many other questions, the original interviews with these individuals asked about stressful events in the past year and whether the participant had provided tangible assistance to friends or family members.
These researchers found that when looking at the impact of stressful life events alone there was negative association between stressful events and mortality. However, when they looked at those participants with stressful life events who had been helping others, this negative association between stressful life events and mortality disappeared. While stress was not a statistically significant predictor of mortality risk for the group who helped others, for those participants who did not report helping others each additional stressful event they reported was associated with a 30 percent relative increase in mortality risk. This relationship between helping others and mortality remained even when controlling for these other potential contributing factors: demographic and socioeconomic factors, health variables, personality, and social network characteristics.
The authors suggest a number of reasons that providing help to others may serve as a stress buffer and lead to decreased mortality risk. These possibilities include positive impacts that may come from helpers having a sense of meaning or mattering, opportunities for generativity, or improved social well-being. Additional research is needed to determine what aspects of helping for others might be contributing to the better mortality outcomes associated with this behavior.
Overall, this research suggests that inquiring about whether an individual is involved in helping others or not is a potentially important clinical question and that encouraging and enabling such helping activities could lead to significant public health benefits. Rather than cutting back on commitments to help others during a stressful time, it may be that these commitments will help mitigate the potential negative impacts of stressful events.