There is some link between our happiness and the health of our heart. Scientists have known this since the 1970’s when it was discovered that those people who are chronically tense, angry, and demanding (Type A personalities) also tend to have higher cholesterol levels and are more prone to heart attacks. Researchers theorize that chronic irritability releases chemicals which convert lipids in the blood into LDL.
But does engaging in the opposite behavior—altruism, gratitude, savoring, for example—alter our heart health? Psychologist Hannah Schreier at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and her colleagues, sought to find out by asking 106 high school students to participate in a study on volunteering. Half of the students spent about one hour per week helping younger children with an activity—either homework, sports, or a club activity. They did so for eight consecutive weeks. The other half of the students, the control group, did not do any volunteering.
The student volunteers were tested at the end of the study and found to have lower cholesterol levels than when they began the study. They also had lower levels of inflammation and lower levels of body fat than the students who were wait-listed. It did not seem to matter what type of volunteering the student did.
How could such a simple activity, over a short period of time, alter one’s health? The researchers did a further analyses of which students in the intervention group had the biggest gains in health. They found that those who reported the highest levels (on several personality scales) of empathy for others, altruistic behavior, and the lowest levels of negative mood had the most improvement to their health. Researchers have established previously that volunteering seems to make the elderly healthier and longer lived. This was the first study to establish the same effect for teen-agers. Thus, the effects are likely beneficial for all ages.
If previous entries to this publication haven’t convinced you to start volunteering, you now have another reason—do it for your health. What’s holding you back?
Schreier, H., Schonert-Reichie, K., & Chen, E. Feb. 25, 2013. Effect of volunteering on risk factors for cardiovascular disease in adolescents. JAMA Pediatrics, 167 (4), 327-332. Link to the article: http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1655500