Recent research has suggested that giving to others—whether in the form of time, resources, or a combination of the two—has numerous positive effects. In fact, one study showed that those who give to a charitable cause were 43 percent more likely to describe themselves as “very happy,” compared to those who didn’t give. Other studies have shown that charitable behavior leads to increased life satisfaction. For example, in a 2004 study, researchers discovered that simply committing random good deeds significantly increased peoples’ moods for several weeks.
The rewards for charitable behavior don’t end with good feelings, however. Those who give to others can expect to reap the following physical and mental health benefits:
1. Better Immune System Function
While a specific, molecular-level explanation for this phenomenon is yet to be uncovered, the connection between the psychological and physiological states—the basis for psychoneuroimmunology (PNI)—has been explored by medical professionals for more than 25 years. In 1987, for example, psychologists McClelland and Kirshnit organized a study to observe associative thought and the influence of cognition, if any, on the body.
They presented a series of themes, as portrayed in movies, to participants and the resulting test data for “generosity” suggested a positive correlation to strengthened immune systems. More specifically, the researchers found that the process of thinking about giving to and serving others generates a rise in salivary immunoglobulin A (S-Ig A) protein, which allows the immune system to process bacteria and viruses.
2. Less Depression and Anxiety
The production of S-Ig A isn’t the only physiological reaction to performing good deeds: charity also creates additional amounts of serotonin in the brain. A neurochemical, serotonin facilitates mood regulation and helps to prevent anxiety. Thus, the nervous system also benefits from putting the needs of others first.
Volunteering, as some researchers have discovered, affects both anxiety and depression because it helps lower stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, in older individuals. In 2003, researchers Musick and Wilson gathered data suggesting that when people offer their time and talents to others, they experience decreased levels of depression. The University of Michigan conducted a study in 1986 that yielded similar results, revealing that people who volunteer report an increase in the level of control they feel over their life. Underlying these studies is the common denominator that performing service fosters an empowering sense of accomplishment.
3. Lowered Blood Pressure
Adding to the previous findings, a 2006 study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology confirmed that giving time and energy to others further manifests health benefits by stabilizing the benefactor’s blood pressure. For the study, psychology professors at John Hopkins University and the University of Tennessee measured blood-pressure levels of participants in two groups: one with people who offer social support and one with people who do not. The results of the study revealed that the former had statistically lower blood pressure. The investigators additionally found less depression among these individuals, as well as a heightened sense of self-esteem.
Faculty members of the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia corroborated studies on blood pressure by finding that when people give money to help someone else, their blood pressure goes down. Further, the more money people donate, the greater the impact on blood pressure. The current theory as to why this happens is that charity promotes relaxation and calms stress, thus resulting in healthy blood-pressure levels.
4. Reduced Mortality Rates
Another important health discovery related to charity is that the combined lowering of stress, anxiety, blood pressure, etc. leads to greater longevity. In a five-year study published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), a team of researchers found that because assisting others addresses the negative effects of stress, it can also combat the rate of mortality.
The AJPH results are supported by statistics from the United States Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Based on the numbers sampled, the states that lead in volunteer activities likewise lead in terms of overall life expectancy. In addition, areas of the country noted for a high rate of charitable endeavors record fewer cases of heart disease.
Charity-related longevity stems from the sense of purpose that individuals gain from striving to make life easier for others. Social psychologists have pointed out that the networks created by charity work also establish deep connections for those involved. Thus, charitable giving helps to solidify a purposeful role in society for the contributor and combats isolation and feelings of loneliness.