In a culture that’s often defined as “me, me, me,” we’re also intent to “give, give, give.” Why do we so willingly share our time, talent, and treasure? For many, it’s just the right thing to do. And according to research, giving back has a positive impact on both our physical and mental health.
The Helper’s High
Studies show that any act of altruism — a selfless act for others — is connected to positive physical and mental effects. According to the Cleveland Clinic, this includes lower blood pressure, increased self-esteem, less incidence of depression, lower stress levels, and even longer life and greater happiness. The link between giving, improved health and longevity may be the decrease in stress, which is often linked to health issues. In one Johns Hopkins study, researchers found that people who provided social support to others had lower blood pressure than those who didn’t.
Giving activates the parts of the brain related to pleasure, trust, and relationships with others. We secrete important feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin — a rush that’s often referred to as the “helper’s high.” A study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health analyzed the MRIs of people who gave to charity. Researchers were able to see how giving stimulated the mesolimbic pathway, known as the reward center of the brain.
Others see the health benefits of diverting our attention from ourselves to others. With stress and depression often linked to inner strife, putting others first through volunteerism or making a financial donation can shift our focus outside of ourselves. This can give you new insight and perspective into your situation and lessen the negative mental impact.
Giving Back Provides Larger Purpose
Contributing time or hard-earned money automatically links us to a person, a cause, or the greater good in general. This connects us to a larger purpose and creates meaning and investment that is integral to mental health. A recent study found that having a purpose in life had measurable cognitive benefits for participants from their 30s all the way into their 80s.The same is true for teens. Those with a greater sense of purpose had a more positive self-image and better transitioned into adulthood.
Giving back can also create a community of like-minded, altruistic people. Whether it’s curing cancer or helping alleviate world hunger, getting behind a meaningful cause can lessen certain mental health risks while also reducing loneliness and isolation.
“Being kind and generous leads you to perceive others more positively and more charitably…this fosters a heightened sense of interdependence and cooperation in your social community,” research psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky wrote in her book, The How of Happiness.
Giving Back Builds Gratitude
Even when we give our own money or time, the giver — not just the recipient — can feel a renewed sense of gratitude. Seeing others benefit from our actions instills a sense of thankfulness for the gifts we have to offer, which research shows is linked to happiness, health, and social bonds. The directors of the Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness focused on teaching college students to “count their blessings.” They later found those students exercised more, were more optimistic, and had a better outlook about their lives overall.
“When you express your gratitude in words or actions, you not only boost your own positivity but [other people’s] as well,” Barbara Fredrickson wrote in her book Positivity. “And in the process, you reinforce their kindness and strengthen your bond to one another.”
Feeling and expressing gratitude can apply to the past, when you’re thankful for a previous blessing; or the present, when you don’t take what you have for granted; or the future, when you’re hopeful and optimistic. No matter how we experience gratitude, giving thanks can make us happier and even lessens the risk of depression.
In a long-term twenty-year study published in the Oxford Journal, researchers found that environment-based volunteers reported fewer depressive symptoms. Other studies have shown a link between generosity and lower rates of depression.
Know that recognizing the needs of others and answering that need with donations, time, and encouragement has a far-reaching impact on others — and yourself.