Humans

It pays to be kind. People live longer in societies that share more across generations

Our natural inclination to help others in need runs extremely deep within our mammalian heritage – there’s many examples of altruism in primates and it’s even been demonstrated in mice.

This generosity, prevalent across human cultures, has psychological and health benefits for us all as individuals. Now researchers have also found evidence that generosity helps people in societies live longer – regardless of their wealth levels.

Examining 34 different countries, researchers found that the more people shared resources between generations, the lower the society’s mortality rate was.

It didn’t matter if these transfers happened through a formal system, like retirement benefits and health care from taxpayers, or privately within families.

“Our analyses suggest that redistribution influences the mortality rate of a country, regardless of the per capita gross domestic product,” said demographer Fanny Kluge from the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

Spatial scientist Tobias Vogt from the University of Groningen, Kluge, and Ronald Lee from the University of California, Berkeley, calculated payments received and given by each person in relation to their lifetime income, using data from the National Transfer Accounts project.

They found people in France and Japan, the societies with the lowest mortality rates, shared around 69 percent of their lifetime incomes.

Whereas countries like China and Turkey, who share less than 50 percent, had double the risk of death for someone over 65 in the coming year. 

South Africa had low rates of sharing, and despite being economically more developed than neighbouring countries, their mortality rate remained similar in comparison – suggesting that their relative wealth didn’t necessarily make up for their lack of sharing. 

This isn’t the first study to suggest that transferring resources, even through formal support systems, benefits the givers too, as well as providing obvious support for those in need. 

“Human beings around the world derive emotional benefits from using their financial resources to help others (prosocial spending),” a study from 2013 stated.

It’s even been shown that providing support and care has a protective effect against mortality for the provider. Generosity is linked to increased happiness and may promote stronger social connectedness.

“Transfer intensity may reflect the strength of social networks and social capital, which have been found to promote health,” the team wrote.

While Vogt and colleagues did adjust for other factors known to influence life expectancy such as GDP, they do caution that there are some factors they couldn’t account for, like political stability.

“Democratisation, empowerment, or the functioning of the civil society may affect both sharing generosity and mortality outcomes,” they explain. “Hence, we cannot infer any causality from this association.” 

But, combined with previous research, this paper suggests our collective endurance as a species is about survival of the most cooperative societies, rather than survival of the fittest individuals, economist John Helliwell from University of British Columbia, who was not involved in the study, told CNN.

With the mess that events of 2020 have wrought upon our lives, findings like these are more important than ever. They provide evidence of a path into the future that could make our societies stronger, despite the massive losses in resources many of us are now facing.

Of course, transferring resources across generations doesn’t just mean money, the researchers explain. It can also include homes, and sharing other benefits such as knowledge between generations, or even volunteering time.

Vogt told CNN that some of the most valuable ways of transferring wealth to your loved ones includes things as simple as cooking, caring and reading to them.

This research was published in PNAS.

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