Spending time or money to help others make us feel good—but did you know it can also alleviate stress, lower blood pressure and even deliver anti-aging benefits?
When Lisa Fielding, 41, moved to Burlington, Ont., her mother-in-law suggested she join Beta Sigma Phi, a nonacademic sorority with chapters across the country, as a way to meet new people. (Her mother-in-law had moved around a lot in the past, and as a longtime member herself, found the group helpful when it came to making friends.) Lisa, who has dysthymia—persistent mild depression that "makes everything feel grey"—figured she'd give it a try, expecting to make a friend or two. She had no idea she'd also get mental health benefits; but, as it turns out, the volunteer work she did through the organization was a reliable mood booster. "Volunteering makes me feel much better," she says. "It's instant, and that feeling lasts for a short while."
Lisa isn't quitting her medication, but she is hooked on the high that being generous to others gives her, whether that means wrapping gifts for the local hospital at Christmastime or weeding the garden at a children's respite on weekends.
According to Ashley Whillans, a researcher at the University of British Columbia's Social Cognition and Emotion Lab in Vancouver, Lisa is onto something. Being generous with our time or our money has proven health benefits for a host of ailments, from high blood pressure to depression, she says. In fact, it might not be so strange to one day receive a prescription for volunteerism in addition to traditional medicine.
Hilary Davidson, a visiting scholar at Rice University in Houston and author of The Paradox of Generosity, thinks this is especially likely when it comes to mental health. "Research has shown that, when we give to others, our stress hormones go down, our serotonin [feel-good hormones] levels go up and we generally feel a sense of calm," she says. "It's called giver's glow." The upshot? Donating time to a worthy cause could lessen the effects of depression, particularly if you do it consistently. (Though Davidson does suggest committing your time incrementally so you don't feel stretched.)
Doing good deeds can also alleviate social anxiety. According to a 2015 study by The University of British Columbia, people who shovelled a neighbour's driveway or carried groceries for a stranger enjoyed reduced levels of shyness. "People with social anxiety expect social situations to go poorly, but giving with an act of kindness resolves that," says the study's lead researcher, Jennifer Trew, a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. "You're setting yourself up for a positive interaction, plus you're strengthening social bonds." And, she says, you don't have to have a social anxiety disorder in order to benefit.
There are quantifiable physical gains to being generous, too. "Helping others can reduce mortality rates by up to 25 percent," says Stephanie Brown, a researcher and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y. Her hypothesis is it activates an ancient caregiver instinct in all of us that triggers, among other benefits, a release of the hormone progesterone, which helps balance our immune system. But data suggests your motive matters; you won't get that benefit unless your generosity comes from an altruistic place. "We have an innate, biological drive to take care of the vulnerable," says Brown. "But if you feel coerced to give, or you are doing it to learn more about yourself, you don't activate those feel-good hormones."
While much of the research around the health advantages of generosity has focused on contributing your time, donating money also has positive effects; charitable donations can reduce your blood pressure, says Whillans. "After our subjects spent money on others, we observed a consistent, immediate reduction in blood pressure that was the same as starting a new exercise routine," she says. Her theory is that spending on others protects our hearts by lowering stress and giving us a sense of autonomy—we feel empowered by the act of helping others. But don't just sign up for automatic donations; the health impact may be stronger if you're thoughtful about choosing a charity and you know where the money is going.
Many of these benefits are particularly evident in older people—it turns out doing good has anti-aging benefits! A review of 74 studies led by Nicole Anderson, an associate professor in the psychiatry and psychology departments at the University of Toronto, showed that volunteer work is associated with better overall health for older adults, including lower rates of depression and lower mortality. Anderson adds that volunteering is an important lifestyle component for maintaining health and well-being in later years, though preliminary research suggests there's a limit to its effectiveness; her work shows the health benefits of volunteer work diminish after two to three hours per week.
The research is certainly promising, and it likely won't be long until scientists can say exactly how much volunteer work or charitable giving is required per week to reduce stress or strengthen our hearts. But there's no reason to delay. Davidson says the simplest place to start is by focusing on small ways you help the people you care about.
"We often underestimate the benefit of helping others," adds Whillans. "It's important to overcome this way of thinking and know that small actions can make a big difference."
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