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What You Get When You Give

Potential health benefits of giving

By Patches Magarro

Published December 23, 2013

“What did you get?” might be the first question kids ask one another after the holidays. But what we get by giving to others may be the greatest gift of all. “A remarkable fact is that giving, even in later years, can delay death. The impact of giving is just as significant as not smoking and avoiding obesity,” according to altruism and health researcher Stephen G. Post, PhD.

Post made these comments to an Australian publication in reference to the giving of one’s time through volunteer work. The study he cites showed a 60 percent lower mortality rate among older adults who were frequent volunteers. During the holidays, giving is usually more of the material kind. Presents wrapped in paper and bows are bestowed upon loved ones with the desire to make them smile. The end result is that, very often, gifting others makes the giver happy.

In a survey of people’s spending habits and happiness, responses indicate that it might be better to spend on others than on oneself. Those who used their money on others by giving gifts or donating to charity reported being significantly happier than those who used their money to pay their own bills and buy things for themselves.

Even better news—happiness is relatively cheap. In a fascinating experiment, social psychologist Liz Dunn lead a team in Canada, which gave groups of students different envelopes of money and different instructions on how to spend it. One group was given either $20 or $5 and instructed to spend the money on themselves. The other group was given either $20 or $5 and instructed to spend the money on someone else. At the end of the day, after the money had been spent accordingly, the students rated their level of happiness. The group who spent the money on others rated themselves as happier than the students who had spent the money on themselves. However, there was no difference in happiness levels between the students who spent $5 and those who spent $20.

According to Post’s research, and invoking the associative property, if giving is associated with happiness, then it is also associated with health, since happiness can be an indicator of health. Among British civil servants, a study showed that the happier participants were also healthier. They had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and when placed under stress, had lower levels of plasma fibrogen, which is a predictor of heart disease. Ruut Veenhoven, emeritus-professor of social conditions for human happiness at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, has published research about the connection between happiness and how it helps to prevent people from getting sick. He asserts that governments and policies should support the happiness of citizens as a way to ameliorate public health.

The most comprehensive review of happiness and living a longer, healthier life has been researched by Ed Deiner, University of Illinois professor emeritus of psychology. In an article he published in 2011, “Happy People Live Longer…”, he concluded that the evidence that subjective well-being lead to health and longevity was “clear and compelling.”

Deiner reviewed over 160 studies in the course of his analysis. One study was especially simple. In 2010 researchers rated photos of 196 baseball players from 1952 for smiling. Based on who smiled, and how intensely, it was possible to predict who was still alive in 2009!

The season of giving, also seems to be the season for getting happy and healthy. Bestow your gifts, whether modest or extravagant, and smile. The benefits could be priceless.

Edited by Joshua Brooks

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The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Epidemiology, the Mailman School of Public Health, or Columbia University.