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Illustration by Alison Garwood-Jones

The surprising science that proves giving is good for you

People who help others feel good about their actions—and studies show that their health gets a boost, too

After Black Friday and Cyber Monday comes GivingTuesday. But instead of focusing on buying things and consuming more, this day is about something positive and affirming: giving back to the community. In 2018, millions of Canadians donated their time or money on GivingTuesday, and more than 6,500 charities and businesses participated—together they raised more than $15 million online (almost 800 percent more than the initiative’s first campaign in 2012).

There’s a good reason why this campaign has such viral appeal. “GivingTuesday is a really celebratory movement, a time when we come together to celebrate generosity and the organizations and causes we support,” says Woodrow Rosenbaum, project strategist at GIV3 , which organizes GivingTuesday Canada. “It’s a happy occasion, and I think that’s why people choose to participate.” It turns out that giving is actually good for you, too. Research shows that when we help others, we also help ourselves. Here’s how.

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Giving feels better than receiving

“We’ve known for a long time that giving makes people feel good,” says Rosenbaum. That warm glow tends to linger, he adds, and scientists have figured out why it happens.

Giving also increases life satisfaction and self-esteem. We also feel happier giving to others than giving to ourselves, even if the gift is modest.

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Giving is good for your heart

Being generous is healthy for both heart and soul. And we’re not just talking about your figurative heart, either. From fighting high blood pressure —which is linked to heart disease, stroke and other serious conditions—to actually reducing your risk of having a cardiac event, being charitable can help protect your most important muscle.

Other studies have found that people who do altruistic things feel a greater sense of purpose and meaning. While this is great for your mental well-being, it also affects your physical wellness in the same way as performing charitable acts: When you feel that sense of purpose, you’re doing even more to lower your risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke.

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Giving lowers stress and depression

Studies have shown that providing support to someone else reduces our stress levels in measurable ways. And it appears that the more we help, the better we feel. Stress has been linked to serious conditions, including high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, infections, depression and anxiety, so cutting back can have a positive effect on your whole-body health.

Volunteering is a terrific way to boost your mood. In a poll of 600 volunteers in the U.K., half of respondents said that donating their time and energy to others made them feel less depressed. Giving back also promotes physical activity and social connection — two other essential components of wellness.

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Giving may help you live longer

There is growing evidence that giving can contribute to longevity. Multiple studies have linked volunteering to lower mortality in older adults, even after taking into account factors such as physical health, age and gender.

Seniors who volunteer are more likely to be in better health and use more preventive health services (such as flu shots and cholesterol checks) than those who don’t. Accessing preventive care certainly helps explain some of this jump in longevity. But giving also encourages social connection and relationships, which are also linked to longer life.

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Giving increases gratitude

Generosity boosts our sense of gratitude, which has a positive effect on health and well-being. Researchers have even found a neural connection between altruism and gratitude. When people are grateful, they feel happier, exercise more and feel better about their lives.

It works the other way, too: gratitude makes us want to give back. Grateful people are more likely to engage in “pro-social” behaviours that benefit people or society, including helping, sharing, donating, cooperating and comforting.

There is so much evidence for the health benefits of giving that some experts think it’s worth prescribing. So consider it doctors’ orders to participate, not just on GivingTuesday, but throughout the year. It’s good for the community and it’s good for you, too. Win-win.

Need ideas for how to get involved? Check out #GivingTuesdayCA on social media or visit givingtuesday.ca.

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