Volume 12, Number 3
It is well-established that providing help to others can be beneficial to one’s health. Persons who provide various forms of support to family and friends, and/or who participate in volunteer work, have been found to subsequently have better health than persons who are not as “prosocial.” Giving of one’s time seems to be of particular benefit to persons who are already “at-risk,” in that helping others seems to serve as a buffer to future declines in health.
Several investigators from the University of British Columbia and the University of California, Irvine have studied the question of whether giving money would be associated with health benefits in a manner similar to the giving of time. The results of their studies were recently released in an advance online publication of Health Psychology.
Their first study involved looking at the correlation between spending on others and blood pressure. The data they examined were from older adults with high blood pressure who were participants in the Midlife in the United States Study (MIDUS). They found that persons who reported spending more money on other people at the first data collection period had lower blood pressure (both systolic and diastolic) two years later.
While this was interesting, the next study was an experimental investigation to determine the blood pressure impact of giving money to research participants (aged 65 and older) that would either be spent on themselves or others. Participants were randomly assigned to either a personal spending condition (“Spend the study payment on yourself. It does not matter how you spend the $40, as long as you spend it on yourself.”) or a prosocial spending condition (“Spend the study payment on someone else. It does not matter how you spend the $40, as long as you spend it on someone else.”). When blood pressure was measured approximately a week after the spending, those who had been directed to spend the money on others had lower blood pressure (both systolic and diastolic) than did those directed to spend the money on themselves. The difference in the groups was that the prosocial group had decreased blood pressure; there was no change in blood pressure in the group that spent money on themselves.
The investigators further found that spending on others with whom there were close social ties was associated with larger improvements in blood pressure than was spending on others where social ties were weak. There was also some evidence that the blood pressure benefit of prosocial spending may be the result of stress-buffering (i.e., reducing the negative impact of stress). Notably, the blood pressure benefit of prosocial spending was similar to what is often found to occur with dietary changes and/or high frequency exercise.
It must be emphasized that these are two relatively small studies and replication of these results is necessary before it can be definitively concluded that prosocial spending lowers blood pressure. But these initial findings do point again to how positive social interaction appears to affect health. Giving to others, either in the form of time or money, may be a beneficial health behavior.
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor of Family Medicine and Director of Behavioral Science for the Family Medicine Residency Program, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. His clinical practice includes psychotherapy, consultation, and coaching.
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