We grew up being told that it is better to give than to receive however amidst the often stressful frenzy of Holiday shopping, the idea that giving to others can be good for your health and happiness when you are standing in the 10th line for the cash register that day, might not be your most paramount feeling.
A growing body of scientific research, however, shows exactly that giving to others without any expectation of reward can actually give you better physical and mental health and help you live a longer and happier life!
A US-based altruism and health researcher Stephen G. Post says, “A remarkable fact is that giving, even in later years, can delay death. The impact of giving is just as significant as not smoking and avoiding obesity.”
In fact a study completed in California of 2025 older residents found that those who volunteered for two or more organizations had a 44 per cent reduction in mortality over five years, even after accounting for factors like differences in prior health status.
What about our Holiday shopping though? Can buying more material things as opposed to the more hands on or face to face helping improve our well-being? The answer is a resounding YES (phew no need to stop the shopping then!) although the results do show that just getting sucked into the commercialism of Holiday shopping can take away the real reason for giving and therefore the health benefits.
Sydney positive psychology expert Dr. Tony Grant says most of the studies have focused on behaviors like volunteering or practicing acts of kindness, but some have looked at spending. These have shown those who spent money on others or on a charity are happier than those who spent on themselves. Therefore, whilst shopping, if you focus on why you’re giving – to make another person happy – it really can make you feel better and there are physical changes that underpin that.
Exactly how giving boosts health is not fully understood, but reduced exposure to stress hormones such as cortisol may be one factor.
“Knowing we’ve done something to improve the life of others not only boosts our self-esteem and gives us a sense of purpose, it also shifts our attention away from our own stresses and worries”, Grant says.
Obviously giving during the Holidays is easy but how can you continue the feel good factor all year round and exactly how much time do you need to give to ensure the health benefits?
A 2002 study of 4860 elderly people found strong positive effects from a combination of volunteering and paid work up to about 100 hours a year, with no extra boost to well-being for those who did more than 100 hours. So 2 hours a week should do it and we should all be capable of that. Grant also says that “even volunteering on a random one-off basis will have immediate effects on our well-being.”
“If you don’t have time to commit to regular volunteer works, you can experience the benefits of altruism simply by practicing acts of kindness”, Grant says.
In one of the most famous studies, students asked to practice five random acts of kindness a week for six weeks experienced a more than 40 per cent increase in self-reported happiness levels, measured on a type of standardized questionnaire widely used in psychological research.
Acts of kindness can be as simple as:-
- Letting someone out in front of you when driving
- Collecting goods for charity
- Surprising a colleague at work with a drink or snack
- Waiting to hold a door open for someone
- Making your partner their favorite meal
- Picking up trash that was not your own
- The list is endless and simple!
Be aware though that if you volunteer or do things for others simply to make yourself feel better you might end up feeling resentful about the work you are putting in with no appreciation. The giving has to done to enhance someone else’s well-being not your own.
So as you wrap those Holiday gifts this year, do it with a loving heart and forget how long it took you to find or pay for, or the price tag that was attached.
“Happy Holidays to you all!”