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Stephen Post is a Professor of Preventive Medicine and the Director and Founder of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. He was previously a[…]

Stephen Post discusses the mental and physical benefits of altruistic behavior. Post is the author of Is Ultimate Reality Unlimited Love? (

Stephen Post: If you are living a generous other-regarding altruistic life, if you are volunteering formally or just being helpful informally, are there benefits to that?  And yes, our research has shown that the benefits are significant.  So, for example, in one national survey Americans were asked if they volunteered in 2009.  So this was a study that began in 2010 so it was looking back a year.  Forty-one percent of Americans had volunteered an average of about 100 hours a year which is only two hours a week roughly.  So not high thresholds.  And then we asked well, did it make you feel physically healthier.  Sixty-eight percent said yes.  That’s kind of like getting off carbs for a little bit and, you know, feeling more energized.  Did it make you feel happier?  Ninety-six percent – yes.

Did it make you feel less stressed?  Seventy-seven percent – yes.  People developed deeper friendships, more meaningful relationships.  They had a sense of gratification.  They expressed greater resiliency when they experienced problems and tough times in life.  So in my view if you could take those kinds of self-reported benefits and put them in a pill, market them at the drugstore, you’d be a billionaire overnight.  But the thing is that you don’t really have to do that because if people simply get in touch with that evolved aspect of their being, they tend to benefit from it.  So I was asked to give a talk at a group of widows and widowers. There is an association on Long Island of widows and widowers and they wanted to know if the study’s showing it really helps with getting through grief and bereavement if you’re able to report informal helping activities in your environment.  I gave a really nice talk and lo and behold, at the end in the Q and A there was a guy in the back and he looked at me and he said, I don’t care what you say, buddy.  I don’t do nothin’ for nothin’.

And, you know, there is that mentality that somehow you have to get reciprocal gains for everything you do.  It’s all tit for tat.  But if you look at the science there are lots of mental and physical benefits.  We study AA a lot.  We study the 12 steps which is where people in Alcoholics Anonymous help other alcoholics.  We discovered that if you have the high quartile of helpers over that first year of sobriety, 40 percent of them stay sober for a whole year.  If you have the low quartile of helpers only 22 percent stay sober.  So high helping activity in AA where you’re a greeter at the door or you’re handing out literature or giving testimony or just meeting other people in the community who you think might need a little AA support or something like that or being a sponsor.  That actually doubles the likelihood of your recovery within a one year period.  There are a lot of studies like this now.

Young people, adolescents who are engaged in volunteering show lower risk for cardiovascular disease lifelong.  They have lower cholesterol levels, lower stress levels, there are a whole lot of things I can talk about there.  But in general it’s good to be good and science says it’s so.  So I think that’s been well established and a lot of people jumped on that bandwagon.  We were probably the first ones to start working seriously on that or at least among the first.  There were other groups but we funded a lot of research in that area, published a lot of important things and now, you know, it’s pretty much the kind of story that you find in Parade Magazine.  I call it give and glow or sometimes the giver’s glow.  O Magazine did their Christmas article cover piece on the giver’s glow this past year.  So it’s caught on in the popular culture.  But it’s not a direct motivation.  It’s a side effect or a byproduct and I always like to emphasize that you’re helping others because it’s the good thing to do, you know, it’s the golden rule and all of that.  But as it turns out in general it’s a very healthy way to go.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton