There’s a reason it’s called the season of giving. As we head into the holidays, many of us start to think about ways we can make a difference in our communities. From local food drives to Salvation Army volunteers ringing their red bells, there are myriad ways to make the most of the giving season. Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Whether you give during the holidays or a lend a hand when it’s needed the most, you likely already know how good it feels to give back to your community.

Not only that, but giving back is good for us. When you donate your money, your things, or your time, you tap into giving back’s not-so-hidden health benefits, both mentally and physically.

The helper’s high

What does eating a piece of cake, falling in love, and volunteering at a soup kitchen have in common? Endorphins. Many feel the same rush with prolonged exercise, also known as the “runner’s high.” When measuring the effect of giving back, researchers named it the “helper’s high.” This is a state of euphoria experienced by individuals who engage in charitable activity. Chemically speaking, this euphoria provides a mild version of a morphine high.

In a 2018 article for Medium, Tannya D. Jajal writes, “Neuroscience has demonstrated that giving is a powerful pathway for creating more personal joy. Helping others triggers impacts to our brain in many positive ways. When we help others, our brains release oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. These hormones have the effect of boosting our mood and counteract the effect of cortisol (the stress hormone).”

And science shows this holds across a variety of cultures, in all generations. For example, one team of sociologists tracked 2,000 people for five years. They found that Americans who described themselves as “very happy” spent at least 5.8 hours per month volunteering. Whether this sense of well-being comes from being more physically active, more socially involved, or some combination of the two is still up for debate. Regardless, research is conclusive: giving back is good for us.

Evolutionary roots of giving back

But why does it feel good to do good for others? Because community-mindedness kept us alive. We’re hard-wired for giving back. As Project Helping outlines in a recent blog post, “Humans are social beings, meaning that we have evolved to create and maintain social bonds. Kindness, compassion, and altruism are ways that we have learned to do this.” This isn’t just a vague notion about human nature. In fact, many scientific disciplines—evolution, genetics, human development, neurology, social science, and positive psychology—investigate the evolutionary underpinnings of giving back.

Our capacity for empathy and desire to help each other likely evolved because it served our ancestors in two ways. First, like every mammal, we need to be sensitive to the needs of our young. Recognizing when they are hungry, frightened, or in pain helps us raise them more successfully. Second, the human species depends on cooperation. When our community is healthy and capable, we do better as individuals also.

“We want to help people. When a friend is in need, we extend our empathy and provide tools to help said friend because something within us feels the need to,” Jajal explains. From a scientific perspective, taking care of others is a matter of enlightened self-interest.

The benefits of giving back

But self-interest probably isn’t the primary driver behind your charitable giving. It’s just an added perk that makes giving back that much sweeter. On top of the immediate rush of the helper’s high, people who give back can live longer, healthier, and happier lives. As if you needed an excuse to make the most of this holiday season.

It might make you live longer

Want to extend your lifespan? It’s time to volunteer at a food bank or write a monthly check to your favorite local charity. Research has shown that giving—regardless of whether you’re giving time, money, or donating things you own—helps us manage stress better. It can even help prevent cardiovascular conditions.

A 1956 study at Cornell University discovered this connection. For 30 years researchers followed 427 married women with children. They assumed that housewives with more children would be more stressed and die earlier than women with few children. Surprisingly, they found that family size, education, class, and work status had no impact on the women’s longevity. So what did?

Researchers found that 52% of women who did not volunteer had experienced a major illness. Of those who did volunteer, only 36% experienced a major illness.

According to WebMD, at least two other extensive studies have found that older adults who volunteered saw health benefits. The results were conclusive: volunteers lived longer than non-volunteers. Another study found a 44% reduction in early death among those who volunteered a lot—a bigger impact than exercising four times a week. So the next time you’re feeling a little run down, it might be better to pick up a volunteer shift instead of your running shoes.

Eases symptoms of depression 

True, volunteering may be the furthest thing from your mind when you’re dealing with symptoms of depression. But research has shown it may be one of the most effective tools in your coping kit. Working with a volunteer organization for as little as two hours a week can improve symptoms of depression.

Because this is still an emerging field of research, the reason behind the improvement isn’t definitive. Some researchers believe it helps to have something outside of your own life and circumstance to focus on for a few hours a week. Others believe volunteering pulls us out of isolation, restoring social connections.

Regardless, the results are supported both by multiple firsthand experiences and by research. A survey for charity Community Service Volunteers (CSV) found that half of those who had volunteered for more than two years (48%) said it made them feel less depressed. The poll of more than 600 volunteers also found that 63% of 25 to 34-year-olds and 62% of over-65s said volunteering reduced stress levels.

Gives a sense of satisfaction and purpose

At our core, humans are social animals. We do best in tightly knit communities and social situations. But in the modern world, we’re both more and less connected than ever before. That may be why—when we volunteer or spend time helping others—we feel a greater sense of satisfaction and purpose.

Plus, volunteering allows us to learn new skills and gain practical experience, which boosts self-esteem. If you want to feel more confident, more connected, and like you’re living a life of purpose, giving back may be the best way to accomplish all three in one fell swoop.

The catch? Volunteering has to be, well, voluntary. People who are obligated to donate their time or money or people who get paid for their service are less likely to experience the benefits of giving.

According to Mitchell Popovetsky, MD, a primary care physician at Rush University Medical Center, “Younger adults may not benefit as much as older adults because they are more likely to volunteer out of obligation. (For example, they may feel they have to help out at their children’s school.) Older adults are more likely to seek out purposeful volunteer roles in their communities.”

Maintain strength and mobility

Even if you’re not climbing the 7 Summits, giving back in general, and volunteering in particular, can have serious physical benefits.

For a long time now, depression and low self-esteem have been linked to heart disease and other serious health conditions. But volunteering can help reduce that risk by keeping us more active. Whether you’re coaching a local softball team or handing out meals to senior citizens.

To quantify the physical benefits of volunteering, one 2013 study  divided one hundred high school students into two groups. One group volunteered and the other did not. At the start of the study, both groups had equal cholesterol levels and body mass index (BMI). Afterward, those who had volunteered once a week for two months ended up with a lower average BMI and lower LDL cholesterol.

Researchers believed that the volunteers’ improved mood and self-esteem helped explain their physical improvements.

Research on middle-aged and older adults resulted in similar findings. Middle-aged volunteers have less belly fat, better cholesterol levels, and lower blood sugar than non-volunteers. Plus, older adults who volunteer are less likely to have high blood pressure. This means, in turn, that they have a lower risk for heart disease and stroke.

Give-backs: where passion meets purpose

Giving back doesn’t necessarily mean donating time and money to people. In fact, it’s most important that the organization or cause you choose resonates with you on a personal level. If that means walking shelter dogs or picking up trash on the side of the highway, then go for it! Again, the study showed that your giving doesn’t have to impact other people. It just needs to be rooted in altruism.

As I get closer to For the Grainer Good’s first scheduled donation to St. Mary’s Food Bank, I’m excited to share the gift of nutritious food. And not just because of the dopamine bump that giving back brings. It’s because I’m invested in ending hunger and feeding the world. Your passion might not be hunger relief, and that’s ok. What’s important is finding something that makes you feel fulfilled.

Finding somewhere to give back: Charity Navigator.

If you’re interested in finding an organization to support this giving season, Charity Navigator can help connect you with the right one. Whether you’re looking to share your time, your money, or your resources, the benefits of giving back are waiting for you.

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