‘Wonder Drug’: Scientific evidence that serving others is best medicine

In our research, we examine the science of things typically considered to be in the moral and ethical or emotional and sentimental domains. Accordingly, we examine familiar things in unfamiliar ways.

W. Edwards Deming, the late scientist and renowned systems engineer, said, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” As physician scientists and academic health system leaders, we agree with this principle and the primacy of evidence-based medicine.

In our first book, “Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence That Caring Makes a Difference,” we asked if compassion really matters. In review of over 250 papers published in peer-reviewed journals, we demonstrated the data shows compassion matters in meaningful and measurable ways. Compassion for patients, our research demonstrated, is not only linked with better outcomes for patients, but also it is a powerful way to promote well-being, resilience and resistance to burnout among health care workers.

Dr. Anthony Mazzarelli. (File photo)

Now, in our new book, “Wonder Drug: 7 Scientifically Proven Ways That Serving Others Is the Best Medicine for Yourself,” we extend this research to uncover how the power of serving others reaches far beyond the medical world and can be a life-changing therapy for everyone, everywhere. The Big Question in “Wonder Drug” is this: What is the evidence-based way to live your life?

After curating the data from another 250 peer-reviewed studies, we demonstrate compelling evidence that serving others is the best medicine — with no side effects — in any environment. Being an others-focused person, research shows, can be a secret superpower. Kinder people not only live longer, they live better. Science supports that serving others is not just the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do.

Research shows that serving others not only activates a “reward” center in the brain and raises neurotransmitters that bring positive emotions, it also shifts your nervous system toward a state of calm. Serving others can also buffer chronic stress and its effects, and it can counteract chronic systemic inflammation, which is associated with cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Dr. Stephen Trzeciak. (Cooper University Health Care)

Giving to others has been found to reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including lowering blood pressure. Serving others is linked with longer life, and buffering the effects of stress on mortality and can help maintain vitality and cognitive function among the elderly. Through complex activation of specific pathways in the brain, research shows that altruistic behavior can also have pain-relieving effects for one’s self. Robust evidence supports that being a giving, others-focused person is associated with happiness, well-being, less depression symptoms, better relationships and more professional success (including making more money).

Historically, the “self-help” books have been full of instructions to focus on ourselves. But the scientific evidence demonstrates the opposite. “It is better to give than to receive,” the guiding principle we may have been taught when we were very young, is actually supported by science.

“Wonder Drug” is perhaps the most counterintuitive “self-help” book you’re ever going to read. It lays out the evidence that will make you rethink your notions of “self-care” and “me time.” By focusing on others and letting go of the goal of helping yourself, you can actually help yourself.

But — and here’s the mind-bender — research also shows that motives matter. If you serve others for strategic or selfish reasons, you might as well forget it. You have to be sincerely others-focused, or it won’t work.

The (very) good news is that the barrier to entry to Live to Give and its benefits is small, yet seismic. You do not need to quit your job, sell all your possessions, move to a Third World country and start hauling water from a distant well. In fact, the first piece of the evidence-based prescription in “Wonder Drug” is this: Start small. Scan your orbit for people in need of help right where you are, in your home, your community, your workplace, and go fill that need, as often as you can.