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The Health Benefits of Giving

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Evidence is growing that doing good—whether it’s volunteering, making donations to a cause, or practicing small acts of kindness (like bringing soup to your sick neighbor)—is also good for your health. It might even help you live longer. 

For proof, says California-based integrative mental health doctor Victoria Chan, ND, look no further than the healthy, long-lived people found in the so-called Blue Zones1Harbagh WT, Mayr U, Burghart DR. Neural responses to taxation and voluntary giving reveal motives for charitable donations. Science. 2007;316:1622-1625. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1140738across the globe, which have some of the highest percentages of vigorous 100-year-olds. “One common thread, no matter where they live, is that they’re actively helping others in their communities,” she notes. 

Dr. Chan, a board member of the Psychiatric Association of Naturopathic Physicians (PsychANP), has seen in her practice how these kindnesses (what researchers call “prosocial acts”) can boost health. “They create positive emotions, which are associated with better health,” she explains. “That is, healing the mind along with the body.”

Here are some ways science suggests that doing good does you good, too.

A Happiness Boost From Feel-Good Hormones

Most of us intuitively know that giving to others can make us feel great. That feeling, sometimes referred to as a “warm glow effect” or a “helper’s high,” may have a biochemical basis. Some research suggests that acts of generosity can boost activity in the regions of the brain associated with reward and pleasure. The same areas light up when we eat something delicious, take drugs, or have sex. 

Volunteers serve food at community shelter.

For example, in a now-classic study,1Harbagh WT, Mayr U, Burghart DR. Neural responses to taxation and voluntary giving reveal motives for charitable donations. Science. 2007;316:1622-1625. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1140738 researchers at the University of Oregon gave 19 test subjects $100 each in virtual cash and connected them to a functional MRI scanner that mapped their brain activity. Then, the subjects participated in an on-screen exercise in which they could transfer some of the cash to a local food bank (they got to keep what was left). When the subjects donated, activity increased in their nucleus accumbens—an area of the brain that contains receptors for dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to reward and motivation. 

Some evidence suggests that other hormones, such as serotonin (the “feel good” neurotransmitter involved in learning, memory, and happiness) and oxytocin (the “cuddle hormone” that helps facilitate bonding and social ties), play a role in how our bodies react when we act kindly. The connections have yet to be fully understood, but it seems logical that if acts that help humanity also make us feel good, we’re more likely to repeat them, and that’s good for us all. “Prosocial behavior may, in fact, be an evolutionary adaptation that has promoted the survival of our (and other) species,” notes a white paper published by the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.2Allen, S. The science of generosity. White paper. Greater Good Science Center at University of California at Berkeley website. Published May 2018. Accessed November 30, 2023. https://ggsc.berkeley.edu

Lower Stress Levels 

Community volunteers paint colorful mural.

People who engage in giving activities like volunteering report feeling less stressed out, and they tend to score lower on measures of stress overall. Altruism “has tangible effects of reducing social isolation and increasing self-esteem and confidence,” says Dr. Chan. “It helps give people a greater sense of control and helps them get unstuck.” 

Recalling a recent patient struggling with multiple life stresses, Chan notes that when she started doing volunteer work helping animals, she felt “calmer and happier.” Her anxiety was eased by many factors, Chan believes: “being out in the environment, being active and around caring people, doing something she really enjoyed, and making a difference.”

Science supports these stress-reducing benefits, too. In the multicenter Midlife in the United States Study,3Han S, Kim K, Burr JA. Stress-buffering effects of volunteering on salivary cortisol: results from a daily diary study. Innov Aging. 2018;2(Suppl 1):75.  https://doi.org/10.1093/geroni/igy023.283 researchers used diaries from a sample of 340 middle-aged and elderly volunteers—and compared their reported daily activities with levels of cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone,” in their saliva. They found cortisol levels were lower on days subjects reported doing volunteer work and higher on the days they didn’t.  

Acts of kindness may also help build resilience by buffering our responses to stressful situations, as suggested by a recent University of Pittsburgh study.4Inagaki TK, Eisenberger NI. Giving support to others reduces sympathetic nervous system-related responses to stress. Psychophysiology. 2016; 53:427-431. https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.12578 Researchers gave a group of 25 healthy men and women a kindness task—writing a supportive note to a friend—while a similar control group of 26 performed a neutral job (writing about the route they took to school or work).  

Participants were assigned stressful tasks (preparing and delivering a speech and performing tricky math calculations while being timed) while the scientists monitored their heart rate, blood pressure, and stress biomarkers. When comparing stress responses, the kindness group had a smaller increase in blood pressure compared with the controls and a lower rise in alpha-amylase (a salivary enzyme more active during stress). “Findings show that giving to others … can reduce the physiological stress response,” the researchers concluded. 

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Better Heart Health

Having a better handle on stress may be one reason why people who regularly practice prosocial activities like volunteering tend to have healthier hearts. For example, in the nationwide Health and Retirement Study,5Kim S, Halvorsen C, Han SH. Volunteering and changes in cardiovascular biomarkers: longitudinal evidence from the Health and Retirement Study. Innov Aging. 2023;7(5):igad048. http://doi.org/10.1093/geroni/igad048 which tracked the health records of 18,000+ people over 50 across a 10-year period, “high-level” volunteers, who gave more than 200 hours of their time per year with charitable organizations, were significantly less likely to have high blood pressure when compared with non-volunteers.  

Other work suggests that acts of kindness may also help protect the heart by reducing the impact of chronic inflammation—a condition where the body’s immune system is activated even when it’s not fighting off a threat. Chronic inflammation is a root cause of several forms of heart disease, including atherosclerosis (hardened, narrowed arteries), heart attack, and stroke. 

When Purdue University researchers6Kim S, Ferraro KF. Do productive activities reduce inflammation in later life? multiple roles, frequency of activities, and C-reactive protein. Gerontologist. 2014;54(5):830-839. https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnt090 looked at a sample of 1790 older adults (ages 57-85) from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project and measured their blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a key marker of inflammation, they found that the more “productive activities” the participants reported engaging in, from being employed to caregiving or attending meetings, the lower their CRP levels tended to be. 

The most powerful activity linked to the lowest CRP levels? Volunteering, especially among older adults. Active volunteers in their 70s and 80s had lower CRP levels than 59–69-year-olds who rarely volunteered. “Regularly engaging in volunteering has a special way of ‘getting under the skin,’” the researchers noted, “resulting in what appears as a younger biological profile for inflammation.” 

A Longer Lifespan 

With proven links to a healthier heart, lower stress, and a happier outlook, it’s perhaps no surprise that you may even live longer when acts of kindness and giving are a regular part of your life. Most recent evidence comes from the Health and Retirement Study,7Kim ES, Whillans AV, Lee MT, Chen Y, VanderWeele TJ. Volunteering and subsequent health and well-being in older adults: an outcome-wide longitudinal approach. Am J Prev Med. 2020;59(2):176-186. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2020.03.004 a major study of older adult health. When researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health surveyed a sample of 13,000 study participants over a 4-year follow-up period, they found that people who volunteered more than 100 hours per year—about 2 hours per week—had a substantially lower risk of death from any cause, when compared with those who did no volunteering. 

“Our results show that volunteerism among older adults doesn’t just strengthen communities, but enriches our own lives,” said Eric Kim, Ph.D., lead author of the study, in a release. Volunteering helps strengthen our bonds to others, he added, “helping us feel a sense of purpose and well-being, and protecting us from feelings of loneliness, depression, and hopelessness.” 

The way acts of kindness connect us to others may be one of the most significant ways they boost our health: Loneliness and isolation are now recognized by the U.S. Surgeon General8Office of the Surgeon General (OSG). Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community [Internet]. Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services; 2023. PMID: 37792968. Accessed November 28, 2023. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37792968 as an “epidemic” whose impact on mortality is equivalent to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.  

Getting Into the Kindness Habit

Making altruism a part of your life is a win–win for the health of your community and for your health, but if you’re not in the kindness habit now, start with small tasks that fit within your means and available time, recommends Dr. Chan. “It can be as simple as offering a compliment to someone or helping a neighbor with something.”  Those small wins, she explains, “can act as positive reinforcement, helping you move forward.” 

However you work them into your life, “acts of generosity and kindness increase life satisfaction and help build better physical and emotional resilience,” she adds. “There are so many benefits!”

Footnotes

  • 1
    Harbagh WT, Mayr U, Burghart DR. Neural responses to taxation and voluntary giving reveal motives for charitable donations. Science. 2007;316:1622-1625. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1140738
  • 2
    Allen, S. The science of generosity. White paper. Greater Good Science Center at University of California at Berkeley website. Published May 2018. Accessed November 30, 2023. https://ggsc.berkeley.edu
  • 3
    Han S, Kim K, Burr JA. Stress-buffering effects of volunteering on salivary cortisol: results from a daily diary study. Innov Aging. 2018;2(Suppl 1):75.  https://doi.org/10.1093/geroni/igy023.283
  • 4
    Inagaki TK, Eisenberger NI. Giving support to others reduces sympathetic nervous system-related responses to stress. Psychophysiology. 2016; 53:427-431. https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.12578
  • 5
    Kim S, Halvorsen C, Han SH. Volunteering and changes in cardiovascular biomarkers: longitudinal evidence from the Health and Retirement Study. Innov Aging. 2023;7(5):igad048. http://doi.org/10.1093/geroni/igad048
  • 6
    Kim S, Ferraro KF. Do productive activities reduce inflammation in later life? multiple roles, frequency of activities, and C-reactive protein. Gerontologist. 2014;54(5):830-839. https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnt090
  • 7
    Kim ES, Whillans AV, Lee MT, Chen Y, VanderWeele TJ. Volunteering and subsequent health and well-being in older adults: an outcome-wide longitudinal approach. Am J Prev Med. 2020;59(2):176-186. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2020.03.004
  • 8
    Office of the Surgeon General (OSG). Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community [Internet]. Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services; 2023. PMID: 37792968. Accessed November 28, 2023. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37792968

This article is provided by

The Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. INM’s mission is to transform health care in the United States by increasing public awareness of natural medicine and access to naturopathic doctors. Naturopathic medicine, with its person-centered principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness overwhelming healthcare systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain optimal lifelong health. INM strives to fulfil this mission through the following initiatives:

  • Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of evidence-based natural medicine
  • Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
  • Research – Expand quality research on this complex and comprehensive system of medicine

About The Author(s)

Author

Joyce Hendley

Joyce’s writing about health and nutrition is informed by science, along with the nourishing wisdom of traditional medicine practitioners and home cooks all over the world. A James Beard award winner with a master’s degree in nutrition and food science, she has contributed to over 20 cookbooks and authored a few of her own—including the James Beard award-winning EatingWell Diet (with Jean Harvey-Berino, PhD). A longtime freelance writer who’s passionate about exploring the connections between food and health, she has written for EatingWell, DiabeticLiving, VeryWell Health, Optum Health, Oscar, the Bell Institute for Health and Nutrition, and more.

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