thereís a magic pill for happiness and longevity, we may
have found it.
studies have found that generosity, both volunteering and
charitable donations, benefits young and old physically and
benefits of giving are significant, according to those
studies: lower blood pressure, lower risk of dementia, less
anxiety and depression, reduced cardiovascular risk and
overall greater happiness.
moves people into the present and distracts the mind from the
stresses and problems of the self," said Stephen G. Post,
founding director of the Center for Medical Humanities,
Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University
School of Medicine in New York. "Many studies show that
one of the best ways to deal with the hardships in life is not
to just center on yourself but to take the opportunity to
engage in simple acts of kindness."
show that when people think about helping others, they
activate a part of the brain called the mesolimbic pathway,
which is responsible for feelings of gratification. Helping
others doles out happiness chemicals, including dopamine,
endorphins that block pain signals and oxytocin, known as the
just the thought of giving money to a specific charity has
this effect on the brain, research shows.
tells us that giving more to oneself is the best way to be
happy. But thatís not the case, according to Dan Ariely,
professor of behavioral economics and psychology at Duke
you are a recipient of a good deed, you may have momentary
happiness, but your long-term happiness is higher if you are
the giver," Ariely said. For example, if you give people
a gift card for a Starbucks cappuccino and call them that
evening and ask how happy they are, people say they are not
happier than if you hadnít given it to them. If you give
another group a gift card and ask them to give it to a random
person, when you call them at night, those people are happier.
are happier when they give, even if theyíre just following
instructions," Ariely said. "They take credit for
the giving and therefore are happier at the end of the
we give is important, too, Ariely said. Taxes are a form of
giving that typically does not make Americans happy. "If
you give directly from a paycheck, we donít pay attention to
it," he said. "Itís the way we give and how we
give that makes us happy. The key is to give deliberately and
thoughtfully, so that other people benefit from it."
supports this, and researchers started from a baseline of
equal physical characteristics among study participants, so it
wasnít a case of healthier people being more willing to
study in the journal Health Psychology by Sara Konrath and a
team at the University of Michigan found that older adult
volunteers had a lower risk of dying in a four-year period
than non-volunteers, as long as they volunteered for
altruistic versus self-oriented reasons.
order to gain a personal benefit from volunteering, you have
to focus on how your giving helps other people," said
Konrath, now director of the Interdisciplinary Program for
Empathy and Altruism Research and assistant professor at the
Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.
"We have the ability to shift our focus, and many of us
do have an other-oriented reason for giving. If we can just
focus on that aspect rather than what we can get out of it,
chances are it will be better for our own health, too."
online national survey of 4,500 American adults (the 2010
United Healthcare/Volunteer Match Do Good Live Well Study)
found that people who volunteer have less trouble sleeping,
less anxiety, less helplessness and hopelessness, better
friendships and social networks, and a sense of control over
a way to manage chronic pain, volunteering holds great
potential. "If you could say that on a scale of 1 to 10,
insulin as a treatment for diabetes is a 9.5, drugs for
Alzheimerís disease are 0.05, volunteering is somewhere up
around a 7," Post said. "If you were somehow able to
package this into a compound, youíd be a billionaire
aging population, reducing cognitive decline is important,
too. A recent review of studies published in the November 2014
Psychological Bulletin found that, among seniors, volunteering
is likely to reduce the risk of dementia and is associated
with reduced symptoms of depression, better self-reported
health, fewer functional limitations and lower mortality.
has even been shown to lower blood pressure. In a June 2013
study from Carnegie Mellon University, adults over 50 who
volunteered at least 200 hours in the past year (four hours
per week) were 40 percent less likely to develop high blood
pressure than non-volunteers.
are several possible explanations for this, said study author
Rodlescia Sneed, now a postdoctoral research fellow at the
University of Pittsburgh. Volunteerism may boost self-esteem
and protect people from social isolation, both of which are
linked to better health in older adults, she said.
volunteer work may also give older adults perspective on their
own life struggles, which can help them better cope with
stress. Helping others also may promote the release of
stress-buffering hormones that may reduce cardiovascular risk.
benefits of giving are seen in younger people, too. A recent
study of 10th-graders at a Vancouver high school found that
students who spent an hour a week helping children in
after-school programs over 10 weeks had lower levels of
inflammation and cholesterol, plus a lower body-mass index.
you canít find time to volunteer "hands on," thereís
some benefit to making a meaningful donation to charity.
"Studies show that people who donate meaningfully even
just once feel happier months later, though it is best to do
so with some regularity," Post said.
also have found that those in Alcoholics Anonymous who help
other alcoholics double their likelihood of overcoming
alcoholism one year after going dry. The benefits of helping
others are greatest when you have experienced the same chronic
problem, Post said.
are on the cusp of reaching the point where we are going to
see more areas in clinical care, including preventive
medicine, psychiatry, adolescent pediatrics, geriatrics, pain
clinics and cardiology, where health care professionals
recommend volunteering as a therapeutic behavior," Post
concept is being used in therapeutic farm communities
developed for people with serious mental illness. "The
premise is quite successful," Post said. "If you
encourage people with major mental disorders, including
schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder, to contribute
meaningfully to a community, they can better manage their