Giving to Others Is Giving to Ourselves

It’s hard to get through the holiday season without stumbling into some version or reference to A Christmas Carol, the popular and famous tale by Charles Dickens that speaks to the value of giving, charity and kindness. In the Dickens tome, the curmudgeonly old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, is shown the consequences of his nefarious behavior, and given a chance to repent. Through, ultimately, his charitable turnaround, good things befall all the characters, especially Scrooge himself.

Today, the label “Scrooge” is synonymous with “cheap,” “selfish” and “miserly.” But even in these busy times when we’re all stretched to the max, counting our pennies and trying to juggle multiple conflicting priorities, we can all benefit from the lesson Ebenezer learned about how giving is receiving, and how good it is for our own health and wellbeing.

When we engage in good deeds, we reduce our own stress — including the physiological changes that occur when we’re stressed. During this stress response, hormones like cortisol are released, and our heart and breathing rates – the “fight or flight” response – increase.

Over an extended period, stress taxes the immune and cardiovascular systems, weakening the body’s defenses, and making it more susceptible to illness and abnormal cellular changes. Continuous stress can hasten aging and shorten our lives, as well. And medical researchers have taken note, discovering that the process of cultivating a positive emotional state through positive and proactive social behaviors such as generosity may lengthen our lives.

Altruistic emotions – the “helper’s high” – can override the stress response, producing higher levels of protective antibodies when one is feeling empathy and love. Studies have identified high levels of the “bonding” hormone oxytocin in people who are very generous toward others. Oxytocin is the hormone best known for its role in preparing mothers for motherhood. Studies have also shown that this hormone helps both men and women establish trusting relationships.

In one animal study, researchers looked at the numerous effects that oxytocin can produce in lab rats, and discovered it lowered blood pressure, reduced stress hormones, and produced an overall calming effect. Altruistic behavior also triggers the brain’s reward circuitry — ‘feel-good’ chemicals like dopamine and endorphins, which our bodies produce naturally.

Altruism is Good for Our Health

There are as many ways to give as there are people. Certainly, making, purchasing and presenting gifts to others evokes a strong positive feeling. But gift-giving, like gratitude, comes in many forms – it’s the myriad acts of random kindness like letting someone have your spot in the bank or supermarket line, stopping for pedestrians, holding open a door, giving up our seat on a bus or train, helping a child, talking with a stranger . . . the list is endless.

Then there are more formal ways we help others, such as serving the poor and needy in shelters and soup kitchens, making donations to charitable organizations, mentoring adults or children, volunteering in hospitals and animal shelters, service through houses of worship, organizing for causes we support – the benefits are the same, regardless of how we express our need to give.

Not only does helping others have a positive effect on own mental health and wellbeing, it improves mood, self-esteem and happiness, reduces isolation (ours and for others), and increases our sense of belonging. A 2006 study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology found that people who gave social support to others had lower blood pressure than people who didn’t. Supportive interaction with others also helped people recover from coronary-related events. The same study also found that people who gave their time to help others through community and organizational involvement had greater self-esteem, less depression and lower stress levels than those who didn’t.

According to a 1999 University of California, Berkeley, study, people who were 55 and older who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44 percent less likely to die over a five-year period than those who didn’t volunteer – even accounting for many other factors including age, exercise, general health and negative habits like smoking. And in a 2003 University of Michigan study, a researcher found similar numbers in studying elderly people who gave help to friends, relatives and neighbors – or who gave emotional support to their spouses – versus those who didn’t.

There’s no down side to giving. It helps us keep things in perspective, improves our outlook on life, and makes the world a happier place. Happiness and optimism are contagious – that isn’t a formal medical evaluation, but we know it’s true. The fallout from negative emotions such as anger and hostility, loneliness and isolation can be debilitating and bad for our health – but we can rid ourselves of many of these issues by volunteering and by giving generously to others, and to our ourselves.


 

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!