The Healthy Power of Doing Good

Mike Waters is a regular contributor to Willamette Living, Look for his column, “Mike on Health”

For 100’s of years. Before the industrial age,  we’ve always stepped up to help our neighbors and people in need.  Whether it’s been helping a friend, neighbor, or belonging to a organized volunteer group.  We’ve been there to help others.  The altruistic side of us that helps make us “whole”  has been a powerful part of our communities and countries fabric. But for years health researchers have looked at the biological implications of why we volunteer, and perhaps why we keep doing it.

It “Feels” good to give of oneself

The father of stress,  Dr. Hans Selye  studied peoples immune systems, their hormone levels, in bad and good situations.  In his research going clear back to the 30’s, he found that people who gave of themselves to others, had a good overall sense of contribution, a sense of purpose, and had healthy immune systems. He called this way of behaving “altruistic egoism”. In his first book, “The Stress of Life”  and when consulting with patients, he would write and talk about advocating this way of life. Giving to others he saw helped people find peace of mind, and calmed their immune systems down.   This was the beginning of understanding that volunteering was helping the helper keep their own stress rates down.  And how it was giving them their own sense of wellbeing.

The biological research is compelling

In health and disease, medical researchers called epidemiologists study large populations of people and look at lifestyle factors that contribute to being ill or being healthy. In several long, ongoing studies it clearly shows that people who volunteer (overall) have less risk factors for heart disease,  and even some cancers.  In these studies, and several isolated studies in this area, the big difference in being healthy or having some risk factors ( high blood pressure, cholesterol, cortisol levels) has to with being SOCIAL.   
People who are socially integrated tend to be healthier. People who volunteer in small or larger situations tend be healthier in their later years and have a better quality of life.

A new world of PNI (psycho-neuro-immunology) and the altruistic ego:

This new area of understanding how the brain is connected to the body through the immune system helps health researchers clearly understand why volunteering give us this “helpers high.” Our thoughts, emotions emote positive or negative hormones. When we are giving, and connected to others our brains send happy messages that flood our system with “happy hormones” ( oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin). When we’re alone, isolated.  We live without purpose, meaning, contribution, the illness hormones ( cortisol,  norepinephrine, too much insulin) increase and create major chronic illnesses. Thoughts and feelings trigger these neurotransmitters. This is what Selye learned 60 years ago. When we “feel” like we’re contributing, living a life with purpose, we have a more balanced healthier immune system. 

Is volunteering and its health benefits “dosage related?”

Is volunteering like other healthy pursuits where we have a daily, weekly recommendation or suggested dose?   Researchers have looked at this from an healthy aging perspective. There doesn’t seem to one recommended amount of time, or days per week. In fact the good news is it doesn’t seem to be too late to start volunteering even if you’re 70+ years of age.  

If you’re already experiencing these good healthy feelings from volunteering I don’t have to motivate you to keep it up.  If you haven’t been, and want to get reconnect, and reengage with community again, then let’s get started.   It maybe just what you, as well as the people you serve, need.

Mike Waters is the Director of Health Promotion for Timberhill Athletic Club in Corvallis OR email him at or call 541-207-4368 for any comments, feedback, or ideas on helping our communities to be healthier. Follow Mike’s tweets at or check the Facebook page, just search for “TAC Your Health” Visit the new web site at:

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