Current events sometimes make you want to ask the question, “Why can’t we just be kind to each other?” “Why is there so much hate and anger in the hearts of some people?” It turns out that hate and anger may not be in the heart of humans, but in a structure in the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is made up of two almond-shaped groups of brain cells deep within an area called the temporal lobes. The amygdala was thought to be the brain’s fear center but is now credited for contributing to behaviors such as kindness, altruism, and charitable giving. In a nutshell, the more generous a person is, the bigger and better their amygdala is! A hormone called oxytocin plays a role in promoting “prosocial decisions” processed in part by the amygdala. The bottom line is, behavior that promotes the release of oxytocin can impact the function of the amygdala and increase charitable, kind behavior. But can this improve overall health?
A study in the Journal of Economic Psychology (reported by the Wall Street Journal in February 2015) reports that charitable giving resulting in tax subsidies can increase self-perception of health. A person’s opinion of their overall health can indicate future health care use and mortality rates. So giving to others may result in receiving more health benefits than you give.
In addition to charitable giving, health can be positively influenced by volunteering. Volunteering has been shown to reduce stress, combat depression, keep you mentally stimulated, and provide a sense of purpose (HelpGuide.org). Many of these benefits result from the social aspect of giving back to your community. By connecting to other persons through service, volunteers have improved self-confidence and their sense of pride and have developed a more positive view of life and future goals. Volunteers have been shown to have less high blood pressure, less chronic pain, less heart disease, and better thinking skills. Volunteers are happier than those who don’t volunteer, even if it is only once a month.
A local healthcare program combines their knowledge of improving health and charitable donations to give back to the community. Graduate students in the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) exemplify the university motto of, “Enter to learn. Depart to serve.” WSSU DPT students raise money every year through fun runs and charity golf tournaments and donate portions of these funds to local agencies such as Ronald McDonald House, the Juvenile Diabetes Association, and the MSFit Foundation. Over the past four years, they have provided thousands of dollars of free physical therapy services through the Community Care Clinic, Rams Know HOW mobile care unit and the MSFit clinic. These students are happy healthcare providers with lots of oxytocin and growing amygdalas! The principle of altruism is a core value in the WSSU DPT program and for all physical therapy professionals.
Congratulations to the Doctor of Physical Therapy students at Winston-Salem State University during October, which is National Physical Therapy Month, on their altruism and community service. Our community would be a happier place if it followed this example (and we would have bigger amygdalas, too)!