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Experts Urge Prioritization of Prosociality for Public Health
October 19, 2023

A multidisciplinary team of national researchers, including Dr. Richard Davidson, founder and director of University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds, has issued an urgent call to funding agencies and public health organizations to support “building the science” of prosociality as a public health priority, in a new commentary published by Nature Human Behaviour.

Population-level strategies to counteract rising levels of hopelessness and despair are desperately needed in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopelessness and despair threaten health and longevity and could lead to steep declines in global population health and dramatically add to related societal costs. Simply expanding mental health services for individuals is not a sufficient solution to addressing ill-being on a global scale.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 5 US adults live with mental illness, with feelings of loneliness or isolation among major contributing factors. The American Medical Association recently issued policies identifying loneliness as a public health issue and supporting evidence-based efforts to combat it.

Past research links prosocial behaviors to greater well-being on an individual and community level. Prosociality, the intent to benefit others, encompasses values like compassion, empathy and selfless acts of kindness.

A key finding by the Lancet Commissions on “global lessons learned from low levels of prosociality during the COVID-19 pandemic,” suggested the substantial value we might gain by defining prosociality on a societal rather than individual scale. “It is possible that centering prosociality as a public health priority could also have positive effects on urgent global issues like climate change and future pandemics,” says Laura Kubzansky, first author of the new commentary and co-Director of the JPB Environmental Health Fellowship at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The team further notes a potential symbiosis between policy, individual and community-level benefits of using a prosocial lens. “Public will influences political will and policies. Policies in turn influence public attitudes. Promoting prosocial values and behaviors at every level - individual, community and in our governance - could create a virtuous cycle and improve both human health and planetary health,” describes co-author Elissa Epel, Associate Director of UCSF’s Center for Health and Community.

One challenge is that factors driving population health trends are typically measured by risks and deficits such as unemployment. Instead, the team calls for an ‘asset-based’ approach to understanding the forces that shape good health and buffer the harmful effects of stress and adversity. “Prosociality hasn’t really been considered as a public health topic. Public health experts look at how populations get sick and how to prevent it, but what if our government invested in social policies around taking care of our community - the effects could be enormously positive on a global scale,” says Kubzansky. “It’s time to investigate factors that promote population health, not just that affect it negatively.”

The team of experts, representing Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, UCSF and Center for Healthy Minds, came to agreement about issuing the call to action after an exploratory meeting to discuss what they call our current “mental health pandemic,” and to consider whether increasing individual, community or societal levels of prosociality might hold promise for mitigating the dramatic rise of mental health problems. After considering research and current tools for improving individual well-being, they came to the conclusion that applying a public health lens to prosociality could generate novel and effective strategies.

Such a lens would suggest considering how to increase levels of prosociality not only at the individual level but throughout the population.

Research suggests that on an individual level, interventions that teach simple meditation practices designed to nurture kindness and compassion lead to increases in prosociality and changes in the brain circuits connected to emotional regulation. The team suggests that a better understanding of the prosociality-health relationship will help guide strategies for scaling up interventions to the population level. “We need rigorous science to identify tools to improve health contexts around the world and funding to support it,” Kubzansky says.

Future work could include developing an epidemiology of prosociality, with research designed to identify the antecedents and consequences of prosociality in the context of both individual and public health. In addition, further development and scalability of prosociality interventions is needed. The team finished the commentary with a call to action - inviting multidisciplinary collaborations from investigators and also inviting funding agencies and other sponsors to support and encourage this work. “Prosocial behavior is one of the most effective antidotes for the divisiveness and polarization that is undermining both our well-being and our democratic values. The importance of our call to action is probably more acute today than ever before in human history,” says Richard Davidson, Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds and co-author of the commentary.

By Heather Harris