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Global Study Suggests Generosity May Help Us Live Longer

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Key Takeaways

  • Altruistic behaviors are proven to have benefits for the giver as well as the receiver.
  • At a larger scale, societies that exhibit greater transfers of wealth show better health outcomes.

Generosity in the form of intergenerational wealth transfers has a direct correlation with mortality rates, a new 2020 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America reveals.

Spanning six continents, the study incorporates a wide range of populations (including children, working-age adults, and retirees) from 34 countries, and the findings show that survival is higher in societies which provide more support and care to one another, regardless of the country’s global economic standing.

Though we know money can be beneficial to our lives, wealth alone doesn’t necessarily result in a longer life. When it comes to longevity as it relates to wealth transfers, we must consider the basics of wealth and resource sharing, why social connection is so important, and how altruism and prosocial behavior impact our long-term health.

The Importance of Resource Sharing

Intergenerational wealth transfers refer to education, unemployment benefits, health and long-term care expenditures, housing allowances, social security, parental leave, and pensions, among other transfers. These may be transferred or received by public or private institutions. When individuals pay taxes and receive social security or free higher education from their government, this is considered a public transfer.

"Private donations may endanger the equality of access to public goods,” says Dr. Pamala Wiepking, Visiting Stead Family Chair in International Philanthropy at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Dr. Wiepking points out that the study doesn’t directly address whether public or private transfers are better, and the issue is often debated. In some countries, like the United States, many citizens may consider the private provision of health care preferable, whereas in the Netherlands many citizens feel it’s a public responsibility to provide services like health and education to ensure equal access. As a result, they are hesitant to make philanthropic contributions to those causes. 

Though the study doesn’t specify, Dr. Wiepking speculates that public transfers might be more important to a population’s health, though we'd need to see more research conducted on this to know for certain.

While we don’t know whether private or public wealth transfers are better, we know from this study that the greater the wealth transfer sharing in a country, the lower the risk of death. In France and Japan, for example, individuals share between 68% and 69% of their lifetime income, and they experience a significantly lower risk of death compared to many other countries. While the percentage has proven to be important, the type of resources that are being shared is also important.

Dr. Pamala Wiepking

The warm glow of giving actually exists in your brain. We [also] know from studies that people who volunteer often have positive health outcomes.

— Dr. Pamala Wiepking

“It’s not just about the money,” says Maria Errea, PhD, economist and freelance researcher. Understanding where money is being allocated to and how that money is being used is crucial. Paying for a child’s education, for instance, is beneficial to the child not because of the money itself but because of the education they received as a direct result of the money.

Countless studies tell us that education directly influences population health. One study reveals that educational skills, such as fundamental knowledge, reasoning ability, and emotional self-regulation, can help close the gap in health inequity, which could ultimately support longer living.

“If you have a society that is highly educated, the individuals are going to be healthier than those living in a less educated society. Of course there are exceptions,” Dr. Errea says, “but there is a positive correlation between health and education.”

Building Social Connectedness 

From family and community to society and culture, social connectedness is a larger part of our daily lives. We know humans naturally crave bonds with each other, but building social networks and social relationships is actually crucial for our health. Social connection is necessary not just for our emotional well-being, but our physical survival too.

Social connectedness, unlike education or health, doesn’t always require substantial money to foster, but it does require reciprocity. Family relationships, neighborhood relationships, or religious communities, as well as volunteering or contributing to community-building initiatives, can provide social connectedness

Research shows mortality rates are 25% higher among socially isolated individuals. While isolation is a global problem, it affects some countries more prominently than others. In the United States, for instance, 28% of older adults live alone, more than one third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and only 20% of the United States population lives in intergenerational households.

“In some countries, the family unit stays together for longer, and in other countries that family unit is separated once an individual becomes an adult,” Dr. Wiepking says.

In Spain, for example, it’s not very common to leave your city. Dr. Errea explains that usually you’re born in a city, and in that same city you go to school and college, and that’s usually where you end up working for the rest of your life. “My perspective is that it’s not only about how much money or how many resources you have to share with future generations, but it’s also about being close to the next generation," she says.

Though Spain isn’t considered as wealthy of a country as the United States, the level of wealth transferred to their younger population (ages 0-20) is higher than that of the U.S., and their mortality rates for individuals ages 0-20 are lower. This suggests that social connectedness and social wealth sharing is beneficial to the health and well-being of children and young adults.

A meta-analysis from 2010, taking 148 studies into account, found that the likelihood of survival is 50% greater for people with stronger social relationships. This held true across all ages, not simply older or younger individuals. Perhaps feeling socially connected to your fellow citizens makes sharing easier and actually more rewarding in the long term.

Maria Errea. PhD

It’s not only about how much money or how many resources you have to share with future generations, but it’s also about being close to the next generation.

— Maria Errea. PhD

Altruistic Behaviors and Prosocial Giving

Wealth sharing can be as simple as giving a gift or donating to a charity. A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that this type of prosocial spending directly impacts the happiness and well-being of the giver, regardless of the giver’s income. And even if you can’t give money, altruistic behaviors have proven benefits.

“The warm glow of giving actually exists in your brain,” Dr. Wiepking says. “We [also] know from studies that people who volunteer often have positive health outcomes.”

How heavily this emotional benefit impacts our overall health, though, is hard to determine, as there are so many different factors to consider.

When donating a liver or a kidney, for example, Dr. Errea explains that this gives you a level of satisfaction that nothing else can give you, but someone who is donating a body part likely has significantly better health compared to another person within their society. For this reason, Dr. Errea isn’t convinced that the benefits of giving directly correlate to long-term health. 

“When you’re altruistic, you’re going to feel better when you’re doing something for someone else,” says Dr. Errea, “[but] everyone has a different level of altruistic behavior.”

When you give without expecting anything in return, you’ll likely reap more emotional benefits. Yet even if you’re generous for selfish or reciprocal reasons, that generosity is still beneficial to the recipient, especially when you're giving the recipient access to health, employment, education, or another social or economic service which will improve their life.

The Future of Wealth Sharing and Longevity

“You need health to be able to work, and you need health to be able to study, so you need to have a healthy population in order to have an even healthier population,” Dr. Errea says. “No one should ever cut resources in health. That is my perspective.”  

While this new research offers great insight into the relationship between income transfers and health outcomes at the aggregate level, Dr. Wiepking believes the next best step is to study private and public wealth transfers separately in order to show which may be more beneficial to a society.

What This Means For You

While being generous with your money if you can has proven to be important, we know wealth alone doesn’t guarantee longevity. Receiving an education, having access to health care, obtaining a job, and being an active member of a society by volunteering your time, socializing, joining community-based groups, and financially donating to social goods and services impact our overall health.

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