Led by Dr Lucía Macchia, a new study sheds light on how prosocial behaviours may be helping to ease the pain of people in the UK.

By Mr Shamim Quadir(Senior Communications Officer), Published

new, first-of-its-kind study suggests that volunteering with any organisation, or donating money to charity, reduces the effects of physical pain on the ability of people to work, with volunteering having a larger effect than donating to charity.

The study, from City, University of London and Harvard University, also suggests that the more money donated to charity, the more physical pain is eased. It did not find a similar dose-dependent effect for the number of hours volunteered with an organisation.

Nevertheless, the study does also suggest that the size of the pain easing effect from volunteering is more than ten times the effect that each additional year of age of a person has on increasing the interference of pain with their normal work.

While both volunteering and donating to charity tended toward a larger reduction in pain interference than volunteering alone, the study found the difference was not statistically significant.

The authors argue that the positive emotions that have previously been linked with engaging in prosocial behaviour can help explain the current findings. In particular, volunteering has been found to be strongly associated with social connection which is a key predictor of wellbeing, including in relation to physical pain.

While prosocial behaviours, such as volunteering or donating to charity, have long been linked to benefits to one’s mental and physical health, until now, no study had investigated whether such behaviours were directly linked to reductions in physical pain.

In the study, the researchers performed analyses of responses to the United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Survey (UKHLS) between the years 2011 and 2020. The UKHLS is ongoing and is administered to participants annually, face-to-face. It was designed to be representative of the UK population as respondents represent all regions of the UK, ages, as well as educational and socioeconomic sectors.

In the main analysis, the responses of approximately 35,000 participants were used. They responded to questions of whether they volunteered or not, donated to charity or not, and which were compared with their responses to whether physical pain interfered with their normal work (be it outside the home or housework), and that they provided on a five-point scale of 0 (not at all) to 5 (extremely).  

The average (mean) age of participants ranged from 49 to 48 years old across donating/volunteering groups, to 42 to 46 years old in the non donating/volunteering groups, with about 45 per cent of the participants being men.

Further analyses found that, overall, participants who did versus did not donate money to charity reported a slower rise in pain over time, although this effect was not found for those who volunteered.

While the authors cannot fully rule out concerns about reverse causality playing a part in the findings, whereby people experiencing more pain may not engage in prosocial behaviours, they argue that the longitudinal study design, and other factors help counteract these concerns.

Physical pain is one of the main reasons people visit the accident and emergency room in the UK. Approximately nine million people in the UK live with chronic pain and musculoskeletal pain alone accounts for 30 per cent of the country’s medical consultations.

Physical pain is also  known to adversely affect a person’s quality of life, including their mental health, productivity at work, and their experience of their family and workplace. Understanding factors that help to reduce pain is necessary for the design of the public health policies needed to address the issue.

Lead author of the study, Dr Lucía Macchia, Lecturer in Psychology at City, University of London, said:

This research contributes to the new and fast-growing literature that studies pain from a socioeconomic, psychosocial, and behavioural perspective. The work provides useful information for the design and evaluation of public health policies by uncovering how engaging in prosocial behaviour, which can create powerful positive emotions and reduce negative mood like stress, can positively affect one’s pain.

The study is published online in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.