’Tis the Season: The Health Benefits of Giving Back

volunteer

We all know that it’s better to give than receive. Obviously, whether it’s giving to charities, volunteering, giving a thoughtful gift or just offering emotional support, giving makes others feel good. But what may not be so obvious is that according to numerous scientific studies, giving also has many health benefits for the giver.

Find the “Helper’s High” Happy Chemical
Most of us have experienced it–helping others and being generous in spirit causes us to feel better about ourselves and feel overall happier. One reason for this is giving causes an actual chemical reaction.

In a 2006 study, researchers from the National Institutes of Health studied the functional MRIs of subjects who gave to charities. They found that giving stimulated the mesolimbic pathway, or reward center of the brain, releasing the endorphins that produce the positive feeling that has come to be known as the “helper’s high.”

Perhaps that’s the reason why a 2008 study by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton and colleagues found that participants felt far happier by giving money to someone else rather than spending it on themselves–despite the prediction before the study that the opposite would be true.

Long Live Generosity
In another study at the University of California, Berkeley, it was found that people age 55 and older who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44% less likely to die over a five-year period than those who didn’t volunteer–even after accounting for other factors like gender, exercise, general health, and negative habits like smoking.

Stephanie Brown of the University of Michigan saw similar results in a 2003 study of elderly couples. Her team found that those who provided practical help and support to friends, relatives or neighbors, or gave emotional support to their spouses, had a lower risk of dying over a five-year period than those who didn’t bask in the giving glow.

Have a Big Heart for a Healthy Heart
Researchers suggest that one reason the act of giving improves health is because it decreases stress, which in turn, can have a positive effect on your cardiovascular health and immune system. A 2006 study, by Rachel Piferi of Johns Hopkins University and Kathleen Lawler of the University of Tennessee, discovered that people who had generous natures and provided support to others had lower blood pressure than participants who didn’t, suggesting a direct physiological benefit to those who give of themselves.

It is not just older adults who benefit from giving of themselves. The first signs of cardiovascular disease can begin to appear during adolescence. Research found that teens who volunteer just one hour a week can have lower levels of inflammation, lower cholesterol, and lower BMIs than those who don’t.

Give the Gifts That Matter
So as the season of giving is upon us, consider giving to charities and to those less fortunate. Instead of gifts, offer to cook your loved ones a meal from scratch, help out with child care, lend a hand with their deep cleaning–or any other show of love that means more than a shiny new gadget. And what better gift could we give ourselves than something that lowers blood pressure, increases self-esteem, decreases stress and promotes longevity?