How Helping Others Will Help Your Health

How Helping Others Will Help Your Health

Altruistic thinking can do wonders for your well-being.

In 2009, two British moms lifted a 1.1 ton truck off a boy who was run over in the street; he survived. In 2012, a 22-year-old woman lifted a car off her father after it fell off a jack while he was underneath and rendered unconscious; she saved his life. In 2016, a 19-year-old woman lifted a burning truck off her dad, freeing him, before jumping in the blazing vehicle and driving it out of the garage to save their house too.

Clearly, when you’re doing something for someone else, you can find unknown powers to change the future—for them.

That fact intrigued researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. They were trying to figure out how altering the way health messages are delivered might help people adopt healthy habits, and change their own future.

Fact: When it comes to hearing well-meaning good advice about your health, most folks reject it, become defensive or have trouble acting on it consistently. One study found it takes an average of 66 days for a new habit to become ingrained and automatic. Clearly, it takes some pretty heavy lifting!

The technique: The researchers wondered what would happen if people were encouraged to change bad habits for good ones after they spent a few minutes thinking about something beyond or outside themselves. Maybe the same surge of altruistic energy that lets a person lift a car could prime the brain to help folks lift a bad habit off their own back.

So, according to their study published in PNAS, the researchers divided 202 participants who were sedentary and overweight or obese into three groups:

  • The first group reflected on things, such as friends and family or spirituality, that mattered a great deal to them. They were asked to imagine times in the future when they would feel close to those people or might feel connected to God or another source of higher power.
  • The second group was directed to think of good wishes for folks they knew and for strangers—such as hoping that they would be happy and well.
  • The control group (poor folks!) had to think about whatever values were least important to them.

They then gave all participants direct health tips about how to lose weight and protect their heart health. Turns out, those folks who thought about others and wished them well or contemplated spiritual realms actually adopted the suggested changes and were significantly more active the following month. And by monitoring participants’ brain activity, researchers confirmed that those who thought about people and realms outside themselves had greater activity in brain regions involved in reward and positive valuation.

Are you ready for priming time? So how can you finally give up smoking? Lose weight? Get in 10,000 steps a day? Eat more veggies? De-stress? Three words: Get over yourself!

  • Start every day with a 10-minute session of meditation and think about your best wishes for those near and dear and those around the world who you know are struggling. Being altruistic to others seems to actually change the way you think—it sort of primes your brain—so that you can be more altruistic to yourself.
  • Then write down one healthy habit goal for your day: Eliminate foods with added sugars. Or, drink only one glass of wine. Or, walk for an hour—and track your steps on the Sharecare app for iOS and Android. Then discover just how motivated you can become.
  • Every day, take a minute whenever you can to remember your good wishes for others.
  • As days pass, try to retain the previous healthy habit (you skipped all added sugars) and add another one: Eat a salad with dinner.

As the researchers from Penn said: The idea of self-transcendence—caring for others beyond one's own self-interest—is a potentially powerful source of change. So Dr. Mike suggests: Get a buddy whose health and well-being you care about and work together to achieve a younger RealAge for both of you.

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

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