Altruistic actions may result in better mental health

People who offer love, listening and help to others may be rewarded with better mental health themselves, according to a new study of churchgoers in the September/October issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

The study is one of the first to track the positive health benefits of altruistic behavior, say Carolyn Schwartz, Sc.D., of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and colleagues.

“The findings really emphasize how helping others can help oneself,” Schwartz says.

Schwartz and colleagues analyzed data collected by the Presbyterian Church for 2,016 congregation members. The members were asked about how often they “made others feel loved and cared for” and “listened to others” in the congregation, and how often they received this attention in return.

The members also answered survey questions about their mental and physical health. Most of the congregation members were in good physical and mental health to begin with, experiencing only normal levels of anxiety and depression.

While the researchers did not find any significant differences in physical health specifically related to giving and receiving help, they concluded that giving help was a better predictor of good mental health than receiving help.

But feeling overwhelmed by others’ demands — giving until it hurts — can have negative psychological effects, according to the researchers.

“Although our findings suggest that people who help others experience better mental health, our findings also suggest that giving beyond one’s own resources is associated with worse reported mental health,” Schwartz says.

Church leaders, older individuals, women and those who took satisfaction from prayer were more likely to be helpers rather than receivers, according to Schwartz and colleagues.

People who give help to others may be less likely to focus inward on their own anxieties and depression or more apt to see their own troubles in perspective, leading to better mental health, say the researchers.

Alternatively, it may be that “people who are functioning well psychologically are better able and hence more likely to give help,” Schwartz says.

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