Good giving: Why helping others is good for your heart and your health

You know that feeling – the warm, fuzzy one you get when you give a gift? Turns out, it’s good for your health. A growing body of research shows that giving a gift, as well as volunteering or donating to charities, has a positive impact on your physical and mental health and can contribute to a longer life.

For some time, researchers have been measuring the benefits of giving, and their findings reveal that giving and volunteering help reduce stress and depression. They also promote healthy social connections and a sense of purpose. Stephen G. Post, professor of preventive medicine and the director and founder of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University, suggests that giving is just as important to maintaining health as avoiding tobacco and obesity.

In his book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Post wrote, “The startling findings from our many studies demonstrate that if you engage in helping activities as a teen, you will still be reaping health benefits 60 or 70 years later. Generous behavior is closely associated with reduced risk of illness and mortality and lower rates of depression.”
In a 2006 study, neuroscientist Jorge Moll and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health found that when people give to charities, it activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure and trust, creating a “warm glow” effect – that fuzzy feeling.

Further evidence of the positive effects of volunteerism was found in a study from Carnegie Mellon University, published in 2013 in Psychology and Aging. Researchers discovered that adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers. High blood pressure greatly increases the risk of serious health problems, such as heart disease and stroke.

But adults aren’t the only ones to benefit from volunteering. Researchers have found that adolescents who give their time to help others also benefit by developing a sense of purpose and a healthy connection to their community.

Giving and volunteering probably won’t counter the unhealthy effects of holiday eggnog, cookie trays and fondue. However, those who receive your gift, time or charity will appreciate the gesture – and you will benefit from a big dose of happiness and good health.

Here are a few ways to kick-start your giving regimen:  
  1. Donate a wrapped gift to a children’s charity.
  2. Donate canned food to a local food bank or food drive.
  3. Volunteer to serve a meal at a shelter.
  4. Volunteer at a senior center or assisted living facility.
  5. Volunteer at the humane society or a dog/cat rescue organization.
Have a happy holiday and a healthy 2015!