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3 Big Benefits of Giving

Abraham Lincoln said, “To ease another’s heartache is to forget one’s own.” To that end, Savvy Psychologist explains how giving can actually benefit the giver even more than the recipient. Check out the 3 big benefits of altruism.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #51

Altruism is tricky.  

We’re more willing to help one person than many (that’s why aid organizations profile a specific child when asking for donations). We’re more likely to give when we have less (wealthy people give a smaller percentage of their income to charity and are more likely to cut back during hard times).  Even that long-held Darwinian notion of selfishness - survival of the fittest - is being re-thought.  

Turns out “fittest” actually means “nicest.” Indeed, evolutionarily, those who play well with others are more likely to survive than those who go it alone. What are some other perks of being nice?  This week, let’s look at the 3 big benefits of giving:

Benefit #1: Giving May Extend Your Life (with Conditions) 

One theory is that giving to others builds social connection, which in turns buffers us against stress and thereby makes us healthier.  A 2013 meta-analysis, or a study of studies, found that volunteering reduced the risk of dying in adults 55 and over by 24%, even when taking their health into account..

Another study from 2011 followed over 10,000 people for nearly 50 years and found that those who volunteered over the last 4 years of the study had a lower risk of dying than non-volunteers, especially if they volunteered regularly and frequently.  

However, it wasn’t just the fact that they volunteered that protected them.  Looking deeper, only those who volunteered out of true altruism - wanting to help others or feeling compassion for those in need - reaped the rewards of longer life.  Those who volunteered as an escape from their own problems or to feel better about themselves had the same mortality risk as those who didn’t volunteer at all.  

And of course, if you feel you have no choice but to give or giving takes up all your time, it’s not altruism anymore - it’s duty. Giving that overwhelms the giver takes a big toll.  For example, a 2005 study established that 25% of Alzheimer’s caregivers have clinically significant anxiety, while another 10% suffer from depression. And a study published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association found that the stress of caring for a cancer patient increases the caregiver’s risk of dying by 63%, even up to 5 years after the patient’s passing.

See also: Caring for Someone with a Serious Illness (Part 1) and (Part 2)

 

To sum up, give genuinely and regularly, but if at all possible, stay within your own capabilities.

Benefit #2: Giving Is Linked to a Stronger Immune System

There are two kinds of happiness and your body can tell the difference, which, personally, blows my mind a little.  

The first kind of happiness is self-gratification - what you feel when you eat a cupcake or win a few bucks at your weekly poker night.  

The other kind of happiness comes from a sense of meaning and direction - what you feel when you contribute.

Now, happiness from self-gratification isn’t necessarily bad - indeed, this time of year, life without Christmas cookies or presents would be kinda sad.  But only the happiness that comes from meaning and purpose strengthens your immunity.

How does this happen? Well, now we’re going to get even more nerdy than usual, so push up your glasses - here we go:

First let’s talk about gene expression.  Think back to 8th grade science.  Your genes store information, much like a cookbook.  When genes are expressed, it’s as if the book is opened and a recipe is made.  And the product of our genes’ recipes are most often proteins.

See also: Personal Genetics: DNA, SNPs, GWAs, and Haplotypes

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.

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