Giving Back: Why Giving is a Great Way to Receive
As you think back to your recent holidays, feelings of anxiety and terror may initially arise, but research reveals that giving one’s time and energy to someone else is well worth the effort. Such service offers significant benefits to both the person who receives the help and the one who is giving; in fact, the same benefits come from any sort of giving, whether that be donating money to a charity or volunteering your time at a soup kitchen. In other words, to create a better life, offer your time and energy to improve someone else’s.
Giving Makes Us Feel Happier
A 2008 study headed up by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton shows that giving money can lift happiness more than spending it on oneself. Despite predictions to the contrary, people feel better about themselves when they give their money away rather than when they buy themselves something they want. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a happiness expert and professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, saw similar results when she asked people to perform five acts of kindness for six weeks1. Also, a study involving random acts of kindness shows that people who help others experience significant increases in happiness for several weeks. In contrast, an experimental group only committed five random acts of kindness a week for six weeks, and they showed less happiness than the other group. Lastly, a longitudinal study occurred in Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall but prior to the German reunification – a period with very low volunteer activity. This study shows that higher levels of volunteer work were associated with higher levels of overall life satisfaction. While this study did not include a true random sampling (rather, a geographic region), the authors were able to conclude that helping others increases wellbeing2.
The Science Involved in Giving
The good feelings involved in these studies can be traced through biology. In a 2006 study, the National Institutes of Health found that people who give to charities activate regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust, which creates the feeling of a warm glow. Scientists also believe that altruistic behavior releases endorphins in the brain, which produces the positive feeling known as the “helper’s high.” In a recent study, scientists recorded the neural activity of participants who decided how to split a hundred dollars between themselves and a local food bank: donations of the money activated the ventral striatum, a brain region that responds to a variety of rewarding stimuli – from cocaine to art and attractive faces. The results suggest that giving (in this case, through charitable donations) is inherently rewarding to the giver.
Linking Generosity to Better Health
Even among the sick and elderly, a wide range of research links generosity with better health. In his book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Stephen Post, a professor of preventative medicine at Stony Brook University, reports that people who give to others have better health even if they chronic illnesses, such as HIV or multiple sclerosis. Additionally, a 1999 study shows that elderly people who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44% less likely to die over a five-year period than non-volunteers, even with age and other risk factors taken into account. Also, a 2003 study shows similar results with elderly couples: people who provided practical help to friends, relatives, neighbors or their spouses had lower risks of dying over a five-year period than those who did not offer such help.
Researchers suggest that one reason giving may improve physical health is that it decreases stress, which is associated with a variety of health problems. According to a 2006 study, people who provided social support to others had lower blood pressure than participants who did not, which suggests a direct physiological benefit to those help others.
Benefits of Gratitude
Whether you give or receive a gift, you may feel gratitude, which is integral to happiness, health and social bonds. Co-directors of the Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough argue that teaching college students to “count their blessings” and cultivate gratitude caused them to exercise more, be more optimistic and feel better about their lives. What is more, Barbara Fredrickson, a pioneering happiness researcher, adds that, “when you express your gratitude in words or actions, you not only boost your own positivity, but other people’s as well.”
The Giving Germ Spreads Happiness Around the World
Giving is contagious: when you give, you not only help the person who receives your gift, but you also create a ripple effect of generosity throughout your community. One study shows that, when someone behaves generously, it inspires observers to do the same for people, commonly referred to as paying it forward1.
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1 “Five Ways Giving Is Good For You”, The Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkley, http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/5_ways_giving_is_good_for_you, (December 13, 2010).
2 “Feeling Good About Giving”, Harvard Business School, http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/10-012.pdf .