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Altruism & Health: Perspectives from Empirical Research

Altruism & Health

Ed. Stephen G. Post

We're all quite familiar with the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, who was miserable in his selfishness, but later became happy when he began helping others. Ebenezer's story is compelling, but is it true that helping others is good for the giver? Although numerous studies have demonstrated that people experience health benefits when treated kindly and compassionately, do those who provide love to others also experience health benefits? In other words, is it at least as good to give as to receive? Does virtue actually have its own rewards? To answer these questions, Altruism and Health brings research in biology, psychiatry, psychology, gerontology, epidemiology, and public health. Much of this research shows that unselfish individuals will find life to be more meaningful, will usually be happier than their selfish counterparts, and will often experience better mental health. Some of this research also finds that unselfish individuals have reduced mortality rates and better physical health. Evolutionary and biological models help to explain these results by elucidating why a person who gives generously to others might live a more functional, happier, and healthier life. There is, however, an obvious caveat: those who allow themselves to be overwhelmed by caregiving will often suffer from the stressful burden of care. These findings challenge the shibboleth that being altruistic has either negative consequences or no benefits. This volume presents the first unified, empirical argument that an individual can live a generous life, without concern for reciprocity or reputational gain, and as a by-product, discover deeper relationships, happiness, health, and even longevity. In doing so, it raises the most essential and perennial questions of moral psychology and the good life.


"Do people who act generously and have kindly emotions reap benefits to themselves? Does this happen even though gaining returns does not motivate their altruistic feelings and behaviors? The path breaking essays in this book answer these questions, with appropriate qualifications, in the affirmative. Better psychological and physical health and a longer life are the main fruits that accrue to the altruistic person. This is true for youth, adults, and the elderly, as well as for those who are already ill. This book inaugurates a new science of giving. It uncovers the realities behind the ancient truth that it is more blessed to give than receive. It is a marvelous resource for health care providers, educators, social scientists, and the inquiring general reader."
—Don Browning, Alexander Campbell Professor of Religious Ethics and the Social Sciences, University of Chicago, Emeritus

"It is hard to imagine a phenotype of greater importance to the future of humanity than that of the dynamic interplay, within various populations, of altruism and narcissism. Stephen Post should be congratulated for bringing together experts on that subject from an amazing diversity of disciplines--from the neuroendocrinology of species of voles to the care of HIV/AIDS patients. The overall picture that emerges is that it is not merely better to give than to receive from a moral point of view; it may also be a better strategy for the maintenance of health and well being for the altruistic giver and, given certain ecologies, may perhaps enhance the reproductive fitness of a population."
—George M. Martin, Professor of Pathology Emeritus, Director Emeritus, Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, University of Washington

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