Give or take a few years (Feb-05)

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A longer life may result from the amount of social support present in your life, but is the longevity due to giving or receiving that support?

Imagine that in your busy schedule each week, you typically at least have Wednesday and Saturday nights free as time to spend however you want. Recently, however, one of your close friends had her car break down and now she is wondering whether you would be willing to drive her to and from a yoga class on Wednesday nights for the next three weeks while the car is in the shop. She told you that the class is only about a 15 minute drive each way. She said that you shouldn't feel pressured, and she just thought she'd ask if you had the time to help her out.

Would you be willing to drive your friend to and from her yoga class for the next three weeks?
  • Yes, I'd take the time to help her out.
  • No, I'd keep my Wednesday nights free.
Do you think that helping out others could at all affect your health?
  • Yes
  • No

Giving vs. receiving: effects on mortality

A research team of investigators at the U of M Institute for Social Research teamed up with CBDSM investigator, Dylan Smith, to conduct a study investigating whether giving or receiving help affects longevity. The researchers noted that receiving social support is likely to be correlated with other aspects of close relationships, including the extent to which individuals give to one another. Based on this, they hypothesized that some of the benefits of social contact, sometimes attributed to receiving support from others, may instead be due to the act of giving support to others.

Using a sample of 423 married couples from the Detroit area, the investigators conducted face-to-face interviews over an 11-month period. The interviews assessed the amount of instrumental support respondents had given to and received from neighbors, friends, and relatives, as well as the amount of emotional support they had given to and received from their spouse. Instrumental support included things like helping with transportation, errands, and child care, whereas emotional support involved having open discussions with a spouse and feeling emotionally supported. Mortality was monitored over a 5-year period by checking daily obituaries and monthly death record tapes provided by the State of Michigan. To control for the possibility that any beneficial effects of giving support are due to a type of mental or physical robustness that underlies both giving and mortality risk, the investigators also measured a variety of demographic, health, and individual difference variables, including social contact and dependence on the spouse.

The investigators found that those who reported giving support to others had a reduced risk of mortality. This was true for both instrumental supoprt given to neighbors, friends, and relatives, and for emotional support given to a spouse. They also found that the relationship between receiving social support and mortality depended on other factors. Specifically, receiving emotional support appeared to reduce the risk of mortality when dependence on spouse, but not giving emotional support, was controlled. Receiving instrumental support from others actually increased the risk of mortality when giving support, but not dependence on spouse, was controlled.

What can we make of these findings?

It appears from these results that the benefits of social contact are mostly associated with giving rather than receiving. Measures that assess receiving alone may be imprecise, producing different results as a function of dependence and giving support.

Given the correlational nature of this study, it is not possible to determine conclusively that giving support accounts for the social benefit traditionally associated with receiving support. Nevertheless, the results of the present study should be considered a strong argument for the inclusion of measures of giving support in future studies of social support, and perhaps more importantly, researchers should be cautious of assuming that the benefits of social contact reside in receiving support.

It's true that when helping others out, you might have to give up some of your own time, but based on the above findings, it looks like in the long run you may end up ultimately gaining more time.

Read the article:

Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it: results from a prospective study of mortality.
Brown S, Nesse RM, Vinokur AD, Smith DM. Psychological Science 2003;14:320-327.