January 7, 2016 – The Altruism Prescription and the Health Argument for Social Good
Since the 17th century, philosophers and scientists have tried to fit altruistic behavior into human social models and evolutionary theory. The term “altruism” has different meanings across disciplines, but the concepts more or less revolve around the different ways an organism derives benefit from other-directed behavior at a personal cost. But a growing body of research on the positive health effects of altruism has given new impetus for promoting altruistic acts for public health, the practical implications of which are very unclear. Nonprofits should probably be more concerned with prosocial behavior (the results of actions) than altruism itself (the motivation behind the action).
This recent article from The Atlantic gives a rundown of the health benefits of volunteering, such as weight loss, improved cholesterol and lower levels of depression. In a study published this month in Social Science & Medicine, Eric Kim and Sara Konrath found that older adults who volunteer are more likely to use preventive health services and spend fewer nights in hospital. Konrath, who is an assistant professor of Philanthropic Studies at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, thinks this body of research is robust enough that doctors should prescribe volunteering along with diet and exercise to improve health. Her argument is that volunteering results in similar health outcomes to smoking cessation, yet doctors don’t advise people to volunteer as they advise them to quit lighting up. “What [doctors] ignore is that most of the context of our day-to-day lives is embedded within relationships. The number and quality of those relationships strongly influences health.”