Altruism and Longevity: My Father’s Example


Evidence of the impact of altruism on health and longevity has never been more clear to me than last Friday, when my father donated 1,000 acres of his land around Little Long Pond to the Mount Desert Island Land and Garden Preserve. My family and I had kept his intended gift as a surprise from the public until this past weekend, when it was announced as an early celebration of his 100th birthday on June 12th.

Nearly 200 people came to witness the occasion, including two horses and a handful of dogs on leashes. After the presentations my father walked up to the podium and told how he has loved this island all his life, and is so glad to be sharing it with others through the future stewardship of the Preserve. He thanked everyone for coming to celebrate this moment. True to character, he thanked others for receiving his gifts. Such a generous-hearted person; no wonder he has lived to be 100.


Much research has been done on the health benefits of altruism, the selfless concern for the wellbeing of others. Below is a partial list from the Mental Health Foundation:

Psychological benefits of altruism are that it:

  • Promotes positive physiological changes in the brain associated with happiness.
  • Creates a sense of belonging and reduces isolation.
  • Helps keep things in perspective, and contributes to happiness and optimism.

Physical benefits are that altruism:

  • Reduces stress.
  • Helps rid of negative feelings, and
  • Can improve longevity.

As quoted in the University of California, Berkeley Wellness website, “Altruism … is considered the bedrock virtue by nearly all religions and cultures. From an evolutionary perspective, we’re wired for helping others. Such conduct is also seen in many other animals, including chimpanzees and elephants; even bees take care of each other.”

If altruism is medicine, my dad’s gift of 1,000 acres spread across his 100 years averages 10 acres of land given for every year of his life! What a steady dose!

As I said in a toast to my dad last night, no wonder he has lived so long. Thank you Dad, for your beautiful example of generosity. May others seek to emulate you in whatever way, at whatever level, they can.

58 - ER and DR Talking


How do you give to others?
How does it make you feel?

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41 Responses to Altruism and Longevity: My Father’s Example

  1. Kate says:

    I love this! And I love his beautiful ways of giving, not to mention yours!!

  2. Dori says:

    The world is so very fortunate to have your Dad and family in our lives! This stewardship is an extraordinary example of his generous spirit and loving heart. Thank him on our behalf for keeping this lovely part of America beautiful.

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      Hi Dori, Thanks for your nice comment. I hope you’ll get to walk on the trails!

  3. Steven Locke says:

    Eileen, what a wonderful story and tribute to your father’s — and your family’s — generosity over the decades. I wish him peace and joy as he transitions into his second century. He is amazing!

    I know that my work with patients over the years has filled me with gratitude for the privilege of sharing the lives of others in such a deep and personal way and at times, to be helpful to others. I am always pleased to see how some of my patients suffering with depression are able to help themselves by helping others.

    I agree that altruism is hard-wired. When we don’t reach out and help others, it often has a corrosive effect on our self-esteem and detracts from our self-confidence and joy of being alive. On some level we know we should want to be altruistic and if we feel unable to do so, it can cause guilt and shame and can contribute to isolation and a resulting loss of social support.

    The Beatles said it best:


    • eileenrockefeller says:

      “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make…” what a wonderful Beetles quote, Steve. Thanks for sharing that! And thanks for all you’ve given this world in your field of psychoneuroimmunology and psychiatry. The world is better off for how you’ve given of yourself.

  4. Ginny says:

    Dear Eileen,

    What a beautiful post and essential reminder for us all. I give my thanks to you, your wonderful father and your entire family for your continued generosity of land, resources, time and knowledge so many people and our planet have and will continue to benefit from.

    With love and gratitude…Ginny

  5. Rebecca Weil says:

    Eileen, What beautiful news and a lovely post! Thank you for sharing this news!

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      Now if only we can get you guys to Maine to walk the trails with us! That would be heaven. Missing you…

  6. joaneee says:

    Eileen, such a touching photo of father and daughter . . . and – to most of us who lost our parents early – I believe most of us would say that you have also had “the gift of gifts” — a father who is still with you — and again has shown us a beautiful way to give to others. I call it “the forever gift of nature to be shared by all”, even more special in this world of ours that has been taken over largely by people and buildings.

    Seal Harbor, Acadia — Maine coastline at its best — has just been enhanced. Speaking for myself, it lifts my spirit, gives me joy.

    As for me: my family taught me by example that every day in every way – we are to give to others, but not expecting anything in return or ever thinking about feeling good that I have done it. BEING THERE for others in need in the so many ways they need love and compassion doesn’t need rewards or “feeling good” either. It is just the greatest thing a person can do — and it comes naturally – and is a forever part of my life. Yes, my life is a full one . . . but never so full that I cannot make time.

    In my inner heart, I call it “living life to the fullest”. With his gift of nature, your father has given something special for the ages. Could there be anything better?? Joan

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      Dear Joan, you are clearly on the path of transcendent love! Thanks for sharing your perspective. I hope you get to enjoy the trails around Little Long Pond someday!

  7. Toby says:

    Eileen, we applauded your father when we read last week about his very generous gift. How do I give to others? By living each day with my father’s credo: Do a mitzvah/good deed every day. How does it make me feel? Human. Sometimes being kind is simply listening. Could world peace come about by listening and being kind? Now that’s a topic for our next dinner conversation!

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      Dear Toby, I agree that doing things for others is truly the act of being human. The challenge is to balance it with the act of human BEING. So easy sometimes to give without caring for ourselves in the process. Can’t wait for dinner!

  8. Lauren Matter says:

    Your father is an inspiration, one who we should all learn from and try to be more like. Happy Birthday to such a wonderful man!

  9. Joanie gonsalves says:

    Beautiful story thanks for sharing and God bless your Dad

  10. Diana Rowan Rockefeller says:

    Wonderful gift, wonderful life–truly fulfilled at the century mark! And a lovely essay; yes, the wise have always known thst “it is better to give than to receive”. Thanks for all your delightful, thought-provoking blog-essays! Much love, Diana

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      Actually I think receiving is just the other part of the equation, like inhaling after the exhale! But it is often easier to give than receive. May we all find balance in our journeys forward.

  11. Hi Eileen, What a wonderful title, “Altruism and Longevity: My Father’s Example”. And, how wonderful that your father gifted 1000 acres of Little Long Pond to Mount Desert Island and Garden Preserve. The photos and thank you posted on Mount Desert capture the beauty and the specialness of Little Long Pond. I imagine that the hikers, horse riders, photographers and visitors will continue to enjoy nature in all its seasons and with camera and paint brush in hand!

    Leadership invites and encourrages leadership. Philanthropy states its case and builds additional
    philanthrophic patrons.

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Mr. Rockefeller.

  12. Phyll says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! What a generous, beautiful, heart-felt gift. As I read your blog today, I felt touched and inspired. My Mom will soon be 97 and is flourishing because my sister takes such good care of her, every day, in every way. We all need care in the form of kindness, devotion, connection and compassion.

    Your Dad loves the land around Little Long Pond and wants to protect it forever. We all want to protect anyone and anything we love. Our family, friends, trees, plants, animals, that which we feel a deep and abiding connection to. Now, the love in your Father’s heart will be shared by millions of people for millennia to come. And, the trees will hum, the wildlife soar, the birds sing, the flowers smile along the shores. That which is inside his heart will be outside for all the world to savor and enjoy. His, and the land’s, inherent majesty and history will forever be preserved.

    What lies before us and what lies behind us are small matters compared to what lies within us. And when you bring what is within out into the world, miracles happen. – Henry David Thoreau

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      I love the Thoreau quote, Phyll. Thanks for sharing that. So true. As are your beautiful words above about all the many ways that my dad’s gift will continue to reverberate. He still drives his pair on the carriage trails!

      • eileenrockefeller says:

        I meant to add all my best wishes to your 97 year old mother, and your care-giving sister. I have a feeling your family lives from the place of heart. What could be a better gift?

  13. Timothy Clarke says:

    Hi Eileen. What a gorgeous gift, well said and the quote too. This is the core value and ethical lesson/gift/teaching that I have taken from John D., your Grandparents, your Dad and your Family as a whole. Your family is a great summation of the joys and benefits of Altruism. Best regards.
    Happy Birthday Mr. Rockefeller.

  14. Dear Eileen, thank you for sharing your amazing father’s generosity of spirit and intent! It has provided me with great inspiration. Your blog of today is a really wonderful tribute to your dear father and provides me with encouragement and with food for thought regarding your theme of Altruism and Longevity. Over the past two weeks I am supporting a dear friend who is inconsolable over the loss of her beloved dog Roux-bea (pronounced Ruby)—I am grateful to be offering love and support and guiding her to a pet loss support group which is thankfully helping her. In my small way I feel a sense of humbleness and gratitude that I helped ease a friend’s anguish. I am sending your wonderful father my warmest wishes for his 100th Birthday! You are blessed to have him still with you at his “tender” age; and he is blessed to have such a wonderful daughter as you!
    With love, Louise

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      Dear Louise, I’m sure you have been a great comfort to your friend in the loss of her dog. Animals become just as much a part of our lives as humans. I’m sure she is doing better because of your loving presence.

  15. Your post of your father is filled with love: an inspiration today. Thank you both!

  16. Richard Trenner says:

    When I was a boy, my father (Nelson Richards Trenner Sr.) used to say that the Rockefeller Family has given more to the American people than any other family ever has. Thank God, the giving goes on. And thank you, Eileen, and thank you, Eileen’s dad.

    My family and I are always keen to return to Maine in summer (we come from the wrong side of the bay), and we’ll head across beautiful Penobscot to Little Long Pond as soon as we can. I hate to think what Mount Desert Island might well be like were it not for the good stewardship and generous gifts of your family. Your father’s latest gift, on his 100th birthday, reminds me that, if every there were an act that “pays BOTH parties,” it’s altruism.

    In the stupid joke department, an infectious disease doctor told me yesterday that I probably have Lyme disease—got, it seems, when my wife, Winslow (one of our sons, who’s named for that great sometime Mainer, Homer), and I were “altruistically” helping cut and clear undergrowth at a school woods in New England. Moral of the story: “Don’t bite the hand that weeds you.”

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      HA ha ha! But so sorry to hear you have Lyme’s disease. It’s no joke. I hope you are on antibiotics. May you be well soon so that you can come walk the trails around Little Long Pond!

  17. Tonja Ali says:

    Beautiful!!!! I love this and am truly inspired! 100 Years Old is a TRUE testimony of a well lived and blessed life. I had one grandparent live to be 102 years old – so I REALLY understand what a blessing it is. Happy Birthday Mr. Rockefeller!

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      Thanks Tonja. I’ll pass on your well-wishes. What great genes you have too. Blessings to you.

  18. Donald says:

    Amazing to live a life spanning two world wars, uncountable brutal conflicts, depressions, McCarthyism, racism, sexism, and environmental degradation, yet to retain the hope for humanity embodied in this gift. Sometimes it feels like our species doesn’t deserve all this beautiful land and that we are more qualified to ruin it than protect it. But if a worldly centenarian can keep the faith, well, I guess I better try to keep up. His hope gives me hope. Thanks for sharing so much.

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      Your comment brought tears to my eyes, Donald. Thanks so much for your perspective. I’m going to read my dad everyone’s comments when I see him on June 12th. I think too often we discard the perspective, memories and gifts of the old in favor of the optimism of younger millennials. We need to put our hope in BOTH. One from the long view; the other from innocence and optimism. And in-between, we need the middle aged because they are the bridge between what is known and not known; between what we give thanks for and what we want to contribute in our one, wide-eyed life.

  19. eileenrockefeller says:

    Thanks Tonja. I’ll pass on your well-wishes. What great genes you have too! Blessings to you.

  20. Jacqui Meyer says:

    With regards altruism, I start first by being a good neighbour and a good friend.

    I’ve discovered two dogs who have wandered from their homes, and have mustered with other concerned neighbours to call the local shelter and/or get them reunited with their owners, if they’re wearing ID on their collars.

    Most recently, in my neighborhood walks with my dog, I’ve come across Harry, an 88-year-old man, with a stooped and slow gait, who lives close by. I’ve spent time getting to know him, as I was concerned about his living alone and if he was needing help in anyway. He was complaining of diarrhea and I learned he was eating dairy products, eggs in particular, that were way past their sell-by date. So we had a conversation about the importance of his tossing produce like this before it got him sick. I called the local Adult Day Services on his behalf, to see what they offered, and during our conversations was able to determine that he had a daughter who did see him on a monthly basis, and a couple of other children who lived at some distance.

    I listen to friends – it’s something I’ve always done. Listening and paying attention makes the receiver feel valued and it’s how I care and show love. But also, while being an observer, I can also learn much about myself.

    Altruism actually is self-serving in the end. Giving of myself to others, at a very fundamental level, makes me feel good and happy at the core. It is how we are wired. It is always encouraging and inspiring to see others do the same, and when I’m the recipient, it surely feels good too!!

    It’s been 11 years since I first saw the beauty of Little Long Pond from the perspective of a horse drawn carriage, as we circled a beautiful and broad trail around it. A little pony called Lucky, was skipping along freely the whole way, within safe distance of us, with all the liveliness and wonder of youth and presence. I remember the physical beauty all around, while the visceral memory of that experience permeated my being. I continue to be in awe as I learn of the myriad ways your family continues to give back in creative, sustainable and forward-thinking ways to this country and to our planet, shining as a beacon of example for us all. Thank you!

    I cherish spending time with my 92-year old father recently. Dementia has taken away much of his memory, but in its place there is innocence, a child-like vulnerability, and with the ego softened, his love and presence shines through. I imagine you enjoy moments like this with your precious and generous father. I know his 100th birthday will be honored in the most beautiful way, and hope you are all able to celebrate your amazing brother, Richard, as you continue to miss his physical presence in your lives.

  21. eileenrockefeller says:

    What a beautiful comment Jacqui. I’m so grateful to you for your story about Harry. What a gift you are, and I feel so lucky to have you as my friend. So does the horse Lucky! Thanks for sharing, and blessings to your 92-year old father and mother.

  22. David Brynn says:

    Louise, Devon, Callie and I just returned from our 25th year of visiting Acadia National Park. We have always loved the gloriously situated carriage trails with their gentle grades, lovely bridges,and spectacular views. In recent years we have enjoyed spending time at Long Pond with Wild Lily of the Forest, our beloved golden retriever. We pondered the cobble bridge north of Long Pond earlier this week. And discovering your father’s recent gift of that land surrounding Long Pond was a treat beyond words. All to say that the Rockefellar Family’s love of land and its generosity in making it permanently available to the public to enjoy is a remarkable gift. It certainly inspires our humble conservation work! Eileen, please give your father a big hug from all of us!

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