"Let me not so much seek to be consoled, as to console ... to be loved as to love," says the St. Francis prayer. Now, science has come up with empiric confirmation of the spiritual truth that it's better to give than to receive.
It's been well established that social contacts have a positive effect on health. Now psychologists at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor say they've teased out the active ingredient in that effect: It's the giving. A group led by Stephanie Brown reports in this month's Psychological Science on a 5-year study of 423 elderly married couples. Each individual was surveyed at the beginning as to the amount of "instrumental" support (help such as rides, errands, and child care) they gave and got from friends and relatives. They were also quizzed on the emotional support they gave and got from their spouses.
Over the course of the study 134 participants died. The researchers found that getting a lot of support did not have much effect either way on mortality. But even after controlling for numerous factors, including age, sex, physical and mental health, and socioeconomic status, the emotional givers showed a 30% reduction in mortality risk. And the reduction was even greater--42%--for the instrumental givers.
University of Michigan psychologist Toni Antonucci says she agrees with the authors that "we have underestimated how important giving is." Brown suggests the study could help lead to changes in treatment of chronically ill or elderly people: Interventions designed to "help people feel supported" may need to be changed to focus on "what people do to help others."