Altruism and Health: Perspectives from Empirical Research

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"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

"This collection sheds important light on the relationship between altruistic love and physical and emotional healing. Altruism and Health is a welcome and original addition to the literature. It is clearly written and accessible to both serious students of the effects of altruism, love, and healing, and to the general public. It will be welcomed by not only the general reader, but also by ministers, counselors, and other professional healers. It is certain to become a valuable reference work. I highly recommend it." —Samuel P. Oliner, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Humboldt State University, and Director, Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute

"Socrates claimed famously that one never loses by doing the right thing. Stephen Post and his contributors claim, a little less boldly, that at least the generous will, probably, stay healthy—and, improving on Socrates, they support this claim with careful empirical science, impressive for its comprehensive detail. Here ethics and religion join science and enjoin us to be more caring and healthy. A seminal work, with an urgent message."—Holmes Rolston, III, University Distinguished Professor and Professor of Philosophy, Colorado State University

"[Post's] stated purpose is 'merely to help open the door to a serious research assessment.' He successfully does this by collecting research reports and reviews by experts drawn from a genuinely impressive array of disciplines. Most of these contributions are of a very high quality. As a result, anyone with any curiousity about possible links between altruism and health (or related concepts) will find much to interest and educate them."—The Psychologist

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195182910
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/12/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen G. Post is a professor in the Department of Bioethics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. President of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, he has studied altruism and unselfish love for three decades at the interface of science, philosophy, and world religions.

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Table of Contents

Introduction. Stephen G. Post, P.D.
Introduction. Stephen G. Post, Ph.D. with Brie Zeltner
1. Does Volunteering Foster Physical Health and Longevity?, Doug Oman, Ph.D.
2. Altruism and Subjective Well-Being: Conceptual Model and Empirical Support, Carolyn Schwartz, Sc.D.
3. Do Generative Adolescents Become Healthy Older Adults?, Paul Wink, Ph.D. & Michele Dillon, Ph.D.
4. Altruism, Well-Being and Mental Health in Late Life, Elizabeth Midlarsky, Ph.D. and Eva Kahana
5. Altruism and Health in HIV, Gail Ironson, M.D., Ph.D.
6. Self-Initiated Volunteering and Mental Health, Marc A. Musick, Ph.D. & Miranda R. Waggoner
7. Altruism and Health: Is There a Link During Adolescence?, Peter L. Benson, Ph.D., E. Gil Clary, Ph.D., & Peter C. Scales, Ph.D.
8. Rx: Volunteer A Prescription for Healthy Aging, Adam S. Hirschfelder, M.A. with Sabrina L. Reilly, M.A.
Introduction. Stephen G. Post, Ph.D. with Brie Zeltner
9. The Biology of Positive Emotions and Health, Andrea Marques-Deak, Ph.D. & Esther M. Sternberg, M.D.
10. Integrating Positive Psychology into Epidemiologic Theory: Reflections on Love, Salutogenesis, and Determinants of Population Health, Jeff Levin, Ph.D., M.P.H.
11. Generativity A Form of Unconditional Love, George E. Valliant, M.D.
12. The Role of Love, Attachment, and Altruism in Adjustment to Military Trauma, Bita Ghafoori, Ph.D. & Robert Hierholzer, M.D.
13. Helping Behavior and Longevity: An Emotion Model, Deborah D. Danner, Ph.D., Wallace V. Friesen, Ph.D., Adah N. Carter, M.A.
14. Forgiveness and Health: A Review and Theoretical Exploration of Emotion Pathways, Charlotte V.O. Witvliet & Michael E. McCullough, Ph.D.
15. Befriending Mans Best Friends: Does Altruism Toward Animals Promote Psychological and Physical Health?, Marivic Dizon, Ph.D., with Lisa D. Butler, Ph.D. & Cheryl Koopman, Ph.D.
Introduction. Stephen G. Post, Ph.D. with Brie Zeltner
16. Close Relationships and Health Through the Lens of Selective Investment Theory, Stephanie L. Brown, Ph.D., R. Michael Brown, Ph.D., Ashley Schiavone
17. Health and the Ecology of Altruism, David Sloan Wilson, Ph.D. and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D.
18. A Short History of Altruism and Health, Christopher Boehm, Ph.D.
19. Altruistic Love, Resiliency and Health and the Role of Medicine, Gregory Fricchione, M.D.
20. Monagamy, Love, and Benevolence: Lessons from Prairie Voles, C. Sue Carter, Ph.D.
Introduction, Stephen G. Post, Ph.D. with Brie Zeltner
21. Volunteerism, Religiousness, Spirituality, and the Health Outcomes of Older Adults, Allen M. Omoto, Ph.D. and Michèle M. Schlehofer, M.A.
22. Altruism, Religion, and Health: Exploring the Ways in Which Helping Others Benefits Support Providers, Neal Krause, Ph.D.
23. Altruistic Love and Physical Health, Harold G. Koenig, M.D.

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