We all know that baby boomers are among the most generous people on Earth, but did you know that recent studies show that generosity can be as beneficial to the giver as it is to the recipient?
During this season of gratitude and giving, it is especially relevant to consider the positive impacts generosity has on both mental and physical health. A longer life, reduced stress, natural optimism and an added sense of purpose are just a few of the proven benefits. In fact, it is thought-provoking to consider the wealth of scientific data that now support the notion that generous people have more robust immune systems, live longer and are happier than others.
One of the main reasons suggested by researchers that the act of giving may increase longevity and improve physical health is that it helps decrease stress, which is a key factor associated with a wide variety of serious health problems. A 2006 study conducted by Rachel Piferi of Johns Hopkins University and Kathleen Lawler of the University of Tennessee revealed that people giving social support to others had lower blood pressure than those who didn’t provide social support, suggesting an immediate and direct physiological benefit to those who give of themselves.
Interestingly, several early studies in the 1980s demonstrated the psychological benefits that accompany helping others, including a stronger sense of well-being. This is defined as feeling energetic, happy, hope-filled, connected and good about oneself. One study compared adults older than age 65 who volunteered at a variety of nonprofit organizations with older adults who did not engage in similar behavior. The volunteer group scored considerably higher in the areas of life satisfaction and the will to live. They also reported experiencing less anxiety, depression and somatization. Somatization is the process by which mental and emotional stresses become physical in the form of psychosomatic illnesses. More recent studies confirm a significant positive association between altruistic activities, well-being and life satisfaction in older.
In a collaborative project with the National Institute on Mental Health and the National Institute on Aging, researchers learned there is a measurable, physiological basis for the positive feelings that often accompany philanthropic giving. Functional magnetic resonance imaging clearly displayed that making a donation engaged the reward centers of the donor’s brain, which are the pathways responsible for the dopamine-mediated euphoria associated with food, money, sex and drugs. Oxytocin, a hormone that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria and connection to others is released when giving. Results of a laboratory study at the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University showed that people given one dose of oxytocin gave more generously and felt more empathy toward others for up to two hours. Director Paul Zak also found that people experiencing the “oxytocin high” could potentially jump-start a “virtuous circle,” wherein one person’s generous behavior triggers another’s similar behavior. In this way, whole communities can be strengthened.
Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese writer, artist and poet, observed that “generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need.”
Fortunately, it isn’t always necessary to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of shopping for gifts or even making monetary donations in order to experience the considerable benefits of generosity. We can give of ourselves and engage with others in many ways this time of year, beginning with those around us in our everyday lives. It is important to be mindful that amid the glitter and bright lights, some community members may be feeling lonely or isolated. Simple gifts of time or service are often most meaningful to others and can take many forms. Sometimes just taking a moment to listen or visit over a cup of coffee can make a tremendous difference in another person’s day. Housebound seniors might appreciate your efforts to shovel snow or do their grocery shopping for them during cold weather. The possibilities are endless and limited only by time and creativity.
So as we count our blessings and experience this season of Thanksgiving, let us also walk together in gratitude and generosity. And if it happens to be of benefit to both recipient and giver, there is all the more reason to rejoice and celebrate the spirit of giving.
Kathryn Hungerford, a recognized certified fund raising executive through CFRE International, is development officer at Missoula Aging Services.