Why Giving is Good Medicine: Highlights of the New Science

Generous behavior shines a protective light over the entire lifespan. If you engage in helping activities as a teen, you will still be reaping health benefits fifty years later. And no matter when you adopt a giving lifestyle, your well-being will improve—even late in life. By learning to give, you become more effective at living itself.

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Here are some of the exciting new scientific findings on giving and health:

  • Giving in high school predicts good physical and mental health in late adulthood, a time interval of over 50 years! Psychologist Paul Wink of Wellesley College studied nearly 200 individuals who have been followed closely since the 1920’s, when they were children, and found that giving protected longevity as well as mental health even half a century later.
  • Giving significantly reduces mortality in later life. In this new study from Doug Oman of the University of California at Berkeley, 2,000 individuals over age 55 were studied for five years. Those who volunteered for two or more organizations had an impressive 44% lower likelihood of dying. The only activity that had a slightly higher effect was to stop smoking. And sociologist Marc Musick of the University of Texas at Austin found that individuals over 65 who volunteer are significantly less likely to die over the next eight years than those who do no volunteer work.
  • Generous behavior reduces adolescent depression and suicide risk. The Institute sponsored four special studies on teens. Boys, in particular, benefit markedly from feelings of love and from generous behavior. Just as intriguing is a study from David Sloan Wilson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, showing that teen girls are more giving than teen boys, and that teens who are giving, hopeful, and socially effective, are also happier, more active, involved, excited, challenged, and engaged than their teen counterparts.
  • Giving quells anxiety. Neal Krause of the University of Michigan followed 976 churchgoing adults over a period of three years. Offering social support to others reduced their anxiety over their own economic situation when they were under economic stress.
  • Late in life, giving to others helps facilitate self-forgiveness. Krause also found that giving is a potent trigger for forgiveness, and particularly for African-Americans. He studied nearly 1,000 older adults and found that providing emotional support to others enhanced the ease with which African-Americans forgave themselves for their own mistakes.
  • Giving to others increases your longevity, although receiving the same kind of help did not. Psychologist Stephanie Brown of the University of Michigan spent five years studying 423 older couples. After adjusting for age, gender, and physical and emotional health, Brown found that those who provided significant support to others were more than twice as likely to remain alive in that five year period. These surprising findings ruled out other factors like personality, health, mental health and marital relationship variables.
  • Giving is so powerful that sometimes even just ‘thinking’ charitable thoughts helps us. The simple act of praying for others, Neal Krause found, reduces the harmful impact of health difficulties in old age for those doing the praying. A new study from the National Institutes of Health shows that merely making a decision to donate to a charity increases activity in parts of the brain that release our feel-good chemicals, dopamine and serotonin. And a new Harvard University study showed that just watching a movie of helping activity boosts the immune system.

Like a resonant bell, giving reverberates all the way through a lifetime.