Studies have demonstrated the benefits of giving — not just for the recipients but for the givers’ health and happiness, and for the strength of entire communities. One of the messages here is that you don’t have to shop to reap the benefits of giving. Research suggests the same benefits come from donating to charities or volunteering your time, like at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. Here are some of the ways that giving is good for you and your community.
Giving makes us feel happy. Several studies have found that giving money to someone else lifted participants’ happiness more that spending it on themselves. These good feelings are reflected in our biology. When we give to charities, it activates regions of our brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust. It has been shown that giving or altruistic behavior releases endorphins in the brain, producing the positive feeling known as the “helper’s high.”
Giving is good for our health. A wide range of research has linked different forms of generosity to better health, even among the sick and especially elders. In fact, elders who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44 percent less likely to die over a five-year period than were non-volunteers, even after controlling for their age, exercise habits, general health, and negative health habits like smoking. Researchers suggest that one reason giving may improve physical health and longevity is that it helps decrease stress, which is associated with a variety of health problems.
Giving also promotes cooperation and social connection. When you give, you’re more likely to get back. These exchanges promote a sense of trust and cooperation that strengthens our ties to others and increases our health. Giving evokes gratitude. Whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of a gift, that gift can elicit feelings of gratitude and is integral to happiness, health, and social bonds.
Giving is contagious. When we give ourselves or material goods, we don’t only help the immediate recipient of our gift, we also spur a ripple effect of generosity through our community. It has been shown that when one person behaves generously by giving, it inspires observers to behave generously later, toward different people. As a result, each person in a network can influence dozens or even hundreds of people, some of whom he or she does not know and has not met. A recent example during the Christmas holidays is of an unknown giver who gives $100 bills to police, who in turn give to random citizens that they encounter. Not only does it create utter joy and happiness for the receiver but it impacts the perception of the police in the community. What a gift!
Giving has also been linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone (also released during sex and breast feeding) that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria, and connection to others. It has been found that a dose of oxytocin will cause people to give more generously and to feel more empathy towards others that last up to two hours, which can be contagious. Given our countries tremendous hatred for others who are different, we need a continuous dosage of oxytocin.
So, whether you gave gifts, volunteered your time, or donated money to charity this holiday season, your giving was much more than just a holiday chore. It may help you build stronger social connections and even jumpstart a cascade of generosity through your community. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself benefiting from a big dose of happiness in the process. Researchers have found that volunteers reported significant improvements in their mental health, along with other socioemotional benefits ranging from a greater feeling of productivity to increased social activity to an overall sense that their life had improved.
Is any altruistic act ever truly selfless because we benefit so much when we are giving to others? I think of giving as kind, like laughter. We might be laughing because we want someone else to feel good about their joke, but mostly we laugh because it feels good. Like laughter, giving is a terrific happiness habit, good for both our physical and emotional well-being.
The secret to aging well is developing the capacity to give and be thankful. Certainly, cholesterol and weight are important to aging well, but our perception and attitudes about giving and being thankful are even more critical. This positive approach to healthy functioning and aging emphasizes hope, togetherness, giving, and altruism. Research suggests that a person’s happiness and life satisfaction grow as they increase their sense of gratitude and giving. Clearly giving “adds life to years,” and when you cultivate qualities like giving, it can be very contagious.
Finally, nearest and dearest to my heart, giving kindness makes us happy. Volunteer work substantially reduces symptoms of depression; both helping others and receiving help is associated with lowered anxiety and depression. It isn’t just that kind people also tend to be healthier and happier, or that happy, healthy people are more kind. Experiments have actually demonstrated again and again that giving kindness toward others actually causesus to be happier, improves our health, and lengthens our lives. What better way to “add life to years”!