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To Your Health

Altruism & Health

Robert Hunsaker


However much the doyens of Darwinism promote the idea that their model of origins, i.e, random mutation and natural selection, can explain everything about life on earth, one thing that even the most die-hard Darwinists struggle with is the existence of altruism and the selfless giving of oneself to others. Though various attempts have been made (including the study of slime mold, believe it or not) to explain, not just altruism, but the fact that those who do good for others actually help themselves, both mentally and physically, it is hard to fit these acts of self-denial for the benefit of others into the evolutionary paradigm.

On the other hand, these traits fit very well in the biblical model of human origins and life. Scripture teaches that two basic principles are at work in our universe, principles as real as the law of gravity and electromagnetism. One is the law of sin and death, which Paul speaks of in Romans 8:2. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” The other is the law of righteousness and life, which the wise man Solomon speaks of in Proverbs 21:21. “He that followeth after righteousness and mercy findeth life.”

In Romans 8:6, Paul contrasts these two principles: “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Carnal mindedness is “anti-altruism,” and this leads to death; in contrast, spiritual-mindedness leads to life. Paul is not describing abstract philosophy or psychology; nor is he describing an arbitrary system of imposed rewards and punishments set up by God to coerce our behaviors. Paul is, instead, describing the most basic biological reality of our lives in this universe. Love or altruism is life-sustaining and life-restoring, while selfishness, sin, self-preservation is lifedestroying—which is the reason why altruism is the biblical model.

E.G. White articulates it this way: “the law of selfrenouncing love is the law of life for earth and heaven” (The Desire of Ages p. 21). Speaking in regard to the unjust steward, she says: “In living for self he has rejected that divine love which would have flowed out in mercy to his fellow men. Thus he has rejected life. For God is love, and love is life” (Christ’s Object Lessons p. 258). Speaking about the rich young ruler, she wrote that “he wanted eternal life, but would not receive into the soul that unselfish love which alone is life, and with a sorrowful heart he turned away from Christ” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 393).

True self-sacrificing love can never be understood, or, even more importantly, experienced, apart from the direct influence of God. New Age spiritualism would have us believe that love is life. Yes, but that love originates and has existence within ourselves, separate from the life and influence of God. Inspiration though, never presents the relationship between life and altruism in this way. The relationship between life and love, apart from God, is merely sentimentalism and emotionalism.

“In the Savior’s life the principles of God’s law–love to God and man–were perfectly exemplified. Benevolence, unselfish love, was the life of His soul” (Steps to Christ, p. 28). Both the Bible and Ellen White remind us that altruism (love) is woven into the fabric of the way that God designed us to live as beings made in His image. And we can find scientific evidence that supports this premise.

Recently, research in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) has begun elucidating the genetic mechanisms whereby social isolation (i.e, individuals not experiencing or giving altruism) probably affect immune cell function and, thus, is linked to more disease via increased inflammation and decreased immunity: “Perceived social isolation (PSI) (loneliness) is linked to increased risk of chronic disease and mortality, and previous research has implicated up-regulated inflammation and down-regulated antiviral gene expression (the conserved transcriptional response to adversity; CTRA) as a potential mechanism for such effects. The present studies used integrative analyses of transcriptome regulation in high-PSI humans and rhesus macaques to define the basis for such effects in neuroendocrine-related alterations in myeloid immune cell population dynamics. CTRA up-regulation also preceded increases in PSI, suggesting a reciprocal mechanism by which CTRA gene expression may both propagate PSI and contribute to its related disease risks.”1

In short, living in an environment where you perceive yourself to be isolated or lonely–without love or altruism– has been associated with genetic regulatory changes in myeloid (white-cell) cells that relate to various disease states. Not only that, but the genetic changes also tend to promote (propagate) the individual continuing in a socially isolated circumstance. In other words, social isolation (without love and altruism) affects your health and causes genetic changes in white cells. In addition, these genetic changes in your white cells have a reciprocal effect and influence you to continue to live in social isolation.

Several different mechanisms have been proposed for the link between health and altruism (sometimes studied in terms of “volunteerism” in many articles). One mechanism is that volunteers tend to be more physically active, and this physical activity alone would be beneficial to health. While most certainly a contributing factor, the health benefits of volunteerism and altruism are present, even for those volunteering behind a desk!

Another hypothesized mechanism is enhanced social support and positive psychological states (mental health); both have been widely shown to promote physical health. Benefits of social support would include better access to health information, better access to tangible supports such as childcare, food, money, etc., and being exposed to social pressure for better lifestyle choices.

Improved mental health or psychological states may also translate into better physical health in several ways. Less dependence on maladaptive behaviors, such as substance abuse or other high-risk behaviors, would be one benefit. Also, improved mental health relating to physical health could occur through what is called less “allostatic load,” or less wear and tear on the body through psychoneuroimmunologic mechanisms.2

Though causation is always hard to infer from epidemiologic and survey/questionnaire based research, the multiple associations across many studies over time indicate that volunteerism/altruism is likely a highly causative factor in improved physical health.

A representative study of nearly 2,000 Californians over the age of 55 demonstrated that multiple chronic illnesses improved as the individuals were involved in more organizations and more hours per week of volunteerism. Mortality also decreased with more volunteerism.3

A similar study of over 7,000 Americans over the age of 70 showed a similar benefit to longevity in those who had been involved in volunteerism in the last 12 months.4

Both of these studies had participants actively involved in religious organizations and/or religious services. The authors noted: “Causal health benefits from volunteering in general, and from altruistic volunteering in particular, are quite plausible when viewed in light of the large amount of evidence and theory. . . For laypersons who need to decide today how they will lead their lives, such evidence may be sufficient to further confirm them in personal belief systems that have celebrated altruism and love through the ages. . . Longevity enhancements for older adults as large as those observed here merit serious social attention and individual reflection. Adolescents, too, the evidence suggest, may reap large benefits from appropriate volunteering.5

Could it be more clear? God’s design for a life of sharing, giving, distribution, relationship, etc., is the best way to live. After all, who doesn’t just feel better when giving as opposed to just getting? I feel better when I’m giving. We all feel better when giving. And we are all just following in the footsteps of The Great Giver Himself– God and His Son, Jesus. May we renew our energies in light of inspiration and science to continue to represent the goodness of God as we give of our time, money, and energy to tell others about the law of life for the universe and its wonderful author Jesus Christ.