Generosity Can Make You Healthier And Happier — Here’s How

It takes more than cutting the occasional cheque or piling stacks of presents under the tree — generosity has to become a habit.

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Generosity: a grinch hand holds a gift

From the Mayo Clinic website to the Sydney Morning Herald, a familiar story surfaces this time of year about the seasonal oxymoron known as holiday stress — specifically, how to survive it. And for good reason: Stress, as we know, does toxic things to the body. Rising cortisol levels ratchet up our heart rate and blood pressure and contribute to heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, depression and infections (for starters). December brings so much stress that in the medical world, Christmas is actually considered a risk factor for death.

But beyond the quick fix tips most stories offer, a flourishing branch of neuropsychology might just have a gift for us all, should we choose to accept it. Researchers studying the mysterious connection between positive emotions and good health are finding that generosity can be a powerful antidote to stress. So powerful, in fact, that there’s compelling evidence that giving to others — be it your time, money, energy or hugs — may even help the stressed live longer.

Exactly why and how this generosity principle works is an active field of study and a controversial one, since it drills down to the roots of what’s been described as “selfish altruism.” But there have been payoffs: It’s now well-established that giving is generally good for your health and (as the Grinch might have predicted) for the heart in particular.

Research from Carnegie Mellon University published in 2013 followed 1,164 adults over four years and found those who volunteered at least 200 hours a year, or about four hours a week, were 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure than people who didn’t volunteer at all. Other studies have uncovered links between generosity and lower levels of depression, higher levels of self-esteem, quicker recovery times after a coronary event, stronger social networks, stronger immune systems and longevity — even among those with elevated stress levels.

Evidence from a large, five-year study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2013 found that people under stress are more likely to die sooner, except when they also give regularly to friends and family by way of financial or emotional support, or simply by running errands and helping with housework.

“It may be that in thinking about others, you take your mind off your own problems,” said study leader Michael Poulin, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo. Presumably, those in a position to help are healthier to begin with, but Poulin says the researchers “did [their] best to control for all those things that might explain the link, and the result still held up.” Giving habitually and authentically was a predictor for people’s lives being extended, says Poulin — the key words being habitual and authentic.

Subscribe To Our Newsletters For Perfect Reading Picks, Straight To Your Inbox Subscribe To Our Newsletters For Perfect Reading Picks, Straight To Your Inbox Since this is the season of giving, it would seem that reaping the health benefits of generosity might be an easy item to cross off that bloated to-do list. A good deal of holiday stress, after all, comes from the perceived pressure to give — all the right gifts, on time and within budget. Yet research suggests it’s not that simple.

If you’re giving out of a sense of obligation, or with the hope it will lower your blood pressure, you’re less likely to benefit from generosity’s stress-busting effects, Poulin says. In other studies, he’s found that the link between generosity and stress reduction is weaker in volunteers who help strangers, unless they happen to be volunteers who generally have positive views of other people. In other words, compassion counts — you have to care about the people you are helping. “My sense of humanity is that we are predisposed, in a big way, to help people we care about,” says Poulin. The tougher challenge is finding ways to build and channel that compassion toward strangers.

And to earn the real health benefits of giving, not only do you have to care, you have to be consistent. Dropping a few coins in collection kettles or serving a single meal at the local soup kitchen isn’t enough. Experts in the field say generosity has to be a “sustained behaviour” for it to make a meaningful physiological or psychological difference to the giver.

“My research shows that one-off generous acts are not necessarily rewarding,” says Cendri Hutcherson, director of the Decision Neuroscience Lab at the University of Toronto, who investigates the psychology of decision-making, including why people decide to be generous with strangers. “It’s the steady diet of good deeds that makes for a good life.”

In The Paradox of Generosity, the 2014 book based on surveys of 2,000 people over five years and interviews with 60 individuals from different cultures and classes, sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson make the case that if we hope to be healthier and happier in our lives, the generosity we practise has to be authentic — and it has to be a regular part of life.

As Smith said in an interview with the New Republic: “One-off things just don’t affect us that much, whereas things that we repeat, things that are sustained in our bodily behaviors and in our minds, have tremendous effects on us.”

How to be more generous (all year round)
Christian Smith, author of The Paradox of Generosity, offers these tips
1. Decide to become more generous.
2. Find ways to be generous that are meaningful to you.
3. Reflect. Chances are you will realize you like being a generous person. The reward loop will start.
4. Start acting that way deliberately, whether you feel like it at the moment or not.
5. Build “I am a generous person” into your self-identity.
Fear not! The biggest hurdle to overcome is often the fear that practising generosity will result in a loss of your own resources. Once people get over that, make a decision and act on it, the most important part of the learning is done.

In theory, it shouldn’t be too hard to make generosity a habit, since giving feels good. Brain-imaging studies have found that giving activates our neural reward circuits, triggering pleasurable surges of dopamine and endorphins in those same primitive structures fired up by eating chocolate, having sex or taking drugs. Researchers have actually dubbed the phenomenon the “helper’s high.”

Yet despite the warm and fuzzy feelings that giving can bring, formal studies find that we are pretty bad at it. On average, Canadians give less than 1 percent of their annual income to charity: 0.6 percent, according to Statistics Canada figures released in 2012. What’s more, the proportion of Canadians who claim a charitable donation on their tax returns has been falling steadily from about 30 percent in the 1980s, down to about 22 percent.

Hutcherson, however, says her research suggests it might be not the act of giving that stokes the reward centre, but merely the process of the brain thinking about giving — the deliberating. So these regions might also be active if you make a selfish decision.

But Lara Aknin, an assistant professor of social psychology at Simon Fraser University who investigates the ties between generosity and happiness, says people aren’t as generous as they could be because they tend to underestimate just how good it will feel. “Our interests are stuck at the forefront of our brains… We have bills and expenses and daily reminders of what we have to pay,” she says. “So [in experiments] when we ask people if they would rather spend on themselves or others, they think they will feel better if they spend on themselves.”

Yet when study participants are given a sum of real money and the choice of how to spend it, Aknin and her colleagues see higher levels of happiness among those who spend generously, like buying a gift for a sibling or food for someone else. That result also held up in the “windfall experiment” — when participants had no idea the testers would track them down later to find out what they did with the cash given to them earlier that day.

In real-life scenarios, generosity and happiness seem to go hand in hand. In a study on the spending habits of more than 600 Americans that was published in Science in 2008, Aknin and her team reported that the more money people spent on others, be it through gifts or donations, the happier they were — and happiness seems to be life’s all-purpose tonic. Research has found happy people have lower stress levels, better overall health, better partners, better jobs and longer lives.

“One of the strongest predictors of happiness is having strong social relationships, so most of the time generosity and altruism are things that are strengthening those relationships,” says Aknin. “So money can buy happiness, if it is spent pro-socially. . . . If you find two bucks in your pocket, buy something for someone else, and see how you feel.” Or, as Poulin advises, go ahead and drop those coins in the kettle. “But then build on that, make it a habit.”

Originally published in 2015. Updated in 2017

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