The Science of Giving

Sandi Schwartz

Want to feel happier and calmer while also helping to make the world a better place? Research tells us that the simple act of giving to others can have profound mental and physical benefits, changing your brain activity and triggering positive emotions. When you spread kindness to your community through gifts, charitable donations, random acts of kindness, and community service, you can experience positive health changes, including less stress and anxiety and a boost in mood. Giving can also help you stay healthy and live longer. Overall, volunteers are happier and healthier than those who do not volunteer. 

You Were Born to Give

Scientists have discovered that infants help others even though they are too young to have learned about being kind and polite. Even toddlers, who are notorious for not wanting to share, are happier when they give instead of receive. A study at the University of British Columbia found that young children who were asked to give away treats expressed greater happiness when they shared with others. The researchers interpreted the results of this study to mean that anytime people participate in pro-social behavior, such as volunteering and giving, we experience an increase in happiness. 

We all have the foundation to be kind and to give back, but we sometimes just need to nurture this part of our lives. If we neglect to do so, negative life experiences can unfortunately tear down this beautiful instinct.

How Giving Transforms You 

Numerous studies have uncovered ways that giving enhances our lives: 

Giving improves health.

Research shows that giving leads to better health. In his book Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Stephen Post, a professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University, explains that giving to others has been shown to increase health benefits in people with chronic illness. In addition, a study from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that giving may improve physical health because it helps reduce stress. Finally, a joint study by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Tennessee indicates that people who help others have lower blood pressure than participants who do not.

Giving encourages an attitude of gratitude.

When you give to those in need, you feel a sense of gratitude because it puts things in perspective. And gratitude is another vital ingredient for happiness and good health. Volunteer work gives you a glimpse of the broader world and helps you learn to appreciate what you have.

Giving promotes social connection.

Several studies suggest that when you give, your generosity is ultimately rewarded by others. These positive actions promote a sense of trust and cooperation that strengthen your relationships. Moreover, when you give a gift, you feel a bond with the person you give it to. All of this is important because having positive social interactions is central to good mental and physical health.

Giving inspires others.

Those who are on the receiving end of a good deed typically want to pass along that positive feeling and help others. Researcher James Fowler at the University of California, San Diego, found that just one act of kindness can inspire several more acts of kindness by others, creating a chain of generosity.

Giving boosts happiness.

When you make others happy by giving them a gift, encouragment, or support, you experience a physiological change called a “helper’s high.” It is a euphoric physical sensation resulting from your brain releasing chemicals called endorphins. This “high,” similar to a drug-induced sensation, makes you feel good naturally, giving you a rush that leaves you elated, excited, and less depressed. This positive energy is similar to how you feel after exercising.

Sandi Schwartz is an author, journalist, and mother of two. She has written extensively about wellness, parenting, and environmental health. 

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