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The ability to give and receive support is a powerful determinant of our health and well-being. In his book, Love & SurvivalDr. Dean Ornish wrote, “Love and intimacy are at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well, what makes us suffer and what leads to healing. If a new drug had the same impact, virtually every doctor in the country would be recommending it for their patients. It would be malpractice not to prescribe it.”

Feeling good when we give is what researchers have identified as a “helper’s high”

Learning how to receive support from others enhances our social and emotional connections and decreases our feelings of stress, loneliness and isolation. Research is now showing us that giving support to others is equally as important in fostering our emotional and social interdependence, which in turn enhances our health and well-being.

Giving Feels Good

Reaching out to help another person often feels like a normal reflex. If another stumbles, your hand immediately extends to steady them. When a friend starts to cry, you quickly offer a tissue and words of reassurance. We hold the door or offer our seat to an elder. Giving is a way to join, to help, and to bond with a fellow human being. It feels right and good.

Feeling good when we give is what researchers have identified as a “helper’s high.” In his book, The Healing Power of Doing GoodAlan Luks introduced this term to describe the uplifting and motivating feeling that people experience when directly helping others and the demonstrable benefits that result in their physical and emotional health.

In a study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the National Institutes of Health investigated the neural mechanisms of charitable donations using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). These brain studies showed that a profound state of joy and delight resulted from giving to others. They found that when people give to charities it activates regions of the brain associated with trust, pleasure and social connection.

Giving Benefits Our Health

When we act on behalf of others, research shows that our physiology is impacted in many positive ways. Dr. Stephanie Brown of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research conducted a study with older adults. Her findings showed that those who regularly provided help to friends, family or neighbors had a significantly reduced risk of dying over a five year period than those who didn’t.

In a study in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, researchers Piferi and Lawler found that those who offered social support to others had lower blood pressure than participants who didn’t. Additionally, they found that participants with a higher tendency to give support experienced greater self-esteem, less depression and less stress than participants with a lower tendency to offer support to others.

Giving Connects Us to One Another

Research psychologist, Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness asserts that when we give to others we feel closer to them and often the receiver wants to return the kindness. She wrote, “This fosters a heightened sense of interdependence and cooperation in one’s social community.” She is identifying for us the virtual cycle that occurs when one person’s generosity lifts us and inspires us to willingly return the favor, creating a positive domino effect.

In their book, Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Livessocial scientists Fowler and Christakis showed, through their research, that when one person is generous it encourages others to do the same toward other people. This often has a wide-ranging effect. They found that giving could spread by three degrees-from person to person to person. They noted, “As a result of giving, each person in a network can influence dozens or even hundreds of people.”

Giving Brings Meaning, Purpose and Happiness

Every day we can find ways to give. There are many ways to share our resources, for the good of others, whether it is through buying a gift for a loved one or volunteering our time or donating to a charity. There are grand gestures that may involve large amounts of money, time and energy. There are also small but powerful gestures of simple kindness. Both can be life enhancing and life altering. Depending on the circumstance, offering a sizable monetary donation can be perceived to be as equally appreciated and valued as a timely visit spent with a grieving friend.

When we choose to help others it also aids us in fulfilling our own needs for meaning and purpose. In a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers at the University of Rochester found that when we help others it increases our feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness. They explain that we feel empowered because we have independently chosen to give out of our own will. In other words, we choose to help because we want to, not because we feel that we have to give. We feel more capable because we believe that our efforts can make a difference. Through this volitional process our sense of caring and connection to others deepens.

In their book Happy Money: The Science of Smart Spending authors Dunn and Norton also assert that giving needs to be based in choice and not in coercion. When we feel cornered into giving, it seldom feels gratifying. When we give solely out of obligation we can feel insincere and even resentful. However, giving that is motivated by glee and not guilt feels honest, happy and helpful. We must reserve the right to say no in instances when we don’t feel good about a request being made for our time, energy or resources.

Take time to step back and ask yourself if making that contribution feels right for you. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can’t say no because it would be selfish to do so. The opposite is actually true. As we learn to exercise greater discernment, our choices become more focused and clear. Our giving then evolves out of thought-filled, conscious, proactive choices. This promotes a deeper sense of responsibility and integrity within us and between us and others.

The Joy of Giving

Giving and receiving support is intrinsic to our human nature. Not only do we need each other to survive, it is through our social and emotional connections that we are able to thrive. In his book, Why Good Things Happen to Good Peoplebioethicist Stephen Post includes a fifty year study showing that individuals who start giving to others during their high school years have been shown to have better physical and mental health throughout their lives. Additional studies show that people of all ages who give to others regularly feel the happiest. His research clearly indicates that there is a direct correlation between compassion, generosity, kindness and good health. He observed, “In Darwin’s Descent of Man, he mentions survival of the fittest only twice. He mentions benevolence 99 times.”

Through the act of giving, the most expedient and effective path to a meaningful, happy and healthful life is within our grasp. All acts of giving carry with them messages of hope, healing and restoration in a world that too often seems to be filled with despair, divisiveness and separation. Giving isn’t just a nice idea. It’s a revolutionary tool that can transform our world for the better, one joyous act of generosity at a time.

What effects have you experienced when giving to others?





Contributed by

Mimi O' Connor
Group Support Specialist

Hearts linked, together we heal…

Better Health Begins With You...

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