The Caring Cure: The Hidden Gifts of Giving

Ahh, December...It is the season of giving, when much time, money and energy is spent on finding the perfect gift for all the cherished people in our lives. At the onset, many of us have the best intentions, eagerly embracing this ancient tradition and opportunity to be generous toward those we love dearly and toward total strangers who could use a little helping hand. Unfortunately our good intentions quickly dissolve into a massive puddle of despair as this energy-consuming process and the season itself becomes an absolutely exhausting, stressful, and non gratifying feasting frenzy on so many levels. This year, while out and about scouring the local malls, book and jewellery stores, or cruising through a never-ending number of internet sites and simultaneously battling "festive fatigue" and "seasonal sensory sabotage" (also known as carbohydrate and alcohol overload), you may find it helpful to know that there are many wonderful healthy pay offs when you act generously toward others. These health benefits await you regardless of whether it is your time, your resources, your talents or your money that you are giving away. The only caveat it seems, is that in order for most of the benefits to manifest, you must not engage in giving for its promising returns, but rather, out of true altruistic generosity. The science suggests that giving is inherently rewarding and that we are hard-wired towards altruism, but when the selfish ego gets involved with its expectations, it undermines the efforts of our pure hearts and minds yet again ! In other words, give generously to others because you want to make others feel good. You will also feel good, but you should not expect any other benefits. It is a little bit like a surprise birthday party organized by your spouse. If you are expecting your spouse to throw you a Surprise 50th on your big day and he does , you won't be at all surprised. If your wife invites you to the symphony on your birthday, and you agree to go simply and only because she loves the symphony, and then there is a big bash awaiting you at the Centennial Concert Hall when you arrive, you will be very surprised!!

1) Helper's High

In a 2008 study performed by the Harvard Business School, researchers found that giving money to someone else resulted in a greater elevation in "happiness scores" than spending the money on oneself. In this research project, the researchers approached students on a university campus and gave them $5 or $20. They instructed half of the students to spend the money on themselves, and the other half to spend the money on someone else (prosocial spending) . Later that evening, when the participants were interviewed, those who were assigned to spend the money on someone else reported feeling happier over the course of the day than those who spent the money on themselves. The amount of money had no impact on the happiness experienced. Researchers decided to test this theory in less affluent countries where people would be struggling to meet their own basic needs and perhaps experience a different response to giving money away. The results remained consistent with prosocial spending leading to greater levels of happiness, despite the subjects' degree of poverty. Psychologists have identified a typical state of euphoria reported by those who engage in charitable activity and have labelled it the "Helper's High". They believe this experience is mediated through the release of our natural opiates...endorphins and dopamine....that flood our brain when we behave generously toward others.

2) Improved Immunity

Over the last two decades, researchers have found that people who volunteer or are labelled as generous, giving or compassionate tend to report fewer health ailments. There has been ongoing speculation that being generous with one's thoughts, time, money and resources leads to improved physiological immunity against infections and illness in general. In an attempt to reveal the physiological basis for this finding, research scientist David McClelland performed a series of studies known as the "Mother Teresa Effect" in the 1980's. He had one group of students view a film of Mother Teresa caring for orphans in Calcutta and a control group viewed a neutral film. After viewing the films, the students who watched the compassionate video demonstrated an increase in protective antibodies in their saliva when compared to the saliva of the students who watched the neutral film. Other studies have demonstrated that helping others also increased the number of T-cells in our blood counts...the warrior white blood cells that fight off disease and aide in the recovery of illness.

3) Decreased Pain Experience

People suffering from chronic pain reported decreased intensity, less functional disability and decreased depression when they reached out to others in similar painful situations. In one study, pain was reported to be decreased by 13%. It is theorized that altruistic behaviour moderates the pain response via the release of endorphins and the decrease of cortisol levels. Recall that endorphins are our natural opiates, and cortisol is a stress hormone that has the potential to increase the pain experience.

4) Improved Heart Health

In a study reported by the scientific journal Psychology and Aging, volunteers between the ages of 51 and 91 were followed for a four year period. All participants had normal blood pressure readings at the beginning of the study period. The participants provided the research team with a history about their volunteerism and other factors at the onset of the study, and then repeated the questionnaire at the end of the study. The researchers discovered that the subjects who spent at least 200 hours per year in a volunteering capacity had a 40% reduced risk of high blood pressure at the end of the study period compared to the non volunteer subjects. A fascinating study performed on adolescents was even more promising. This study, conducted by Hannah Schreier , University of British Columbia, Faculty of Education and published in the journal JAMA Paediatrics (2013) assessed high school seniors for several cardiovascular risk factors, including body mass index (BMI) , cholesterol levels and markers for inflammation. Prior to dividing the students into a volunteer group and a wait-list to volunteer group, there was no statistically significant difference between the two groups as far as physical parameters recorded were concerned. The groups were also screened for mood, mental health and empathy markers. Again, no difference was detected at the onset of the study. The volunteer group was involved in volunteering 1-1.5 hours per week for ten weeks. When the cardiovascular risk factors were re-evaluated at the end of the ten weeks, the volunteer group experienced decreased cholesterol levels, decreased cortisol levels and improved BMI scores. Interestingly, the participants who experienced the most significant improvements in physiological markers of cardiovascular health also experienced the greatest increases in empathy, altruistic behaviours and mental health. (Hmm....very interesting it possible that our physical heart health and our "emotional" heart health are much more closely linked than we had imagined ???)

5) Decreased Illness, Increased Longevity

A 2013 review of the literature published in the journal Psychology and Aging set out to analyze the results of fourteen previously published studies that looked at the health benefits of volunteerism in those 55 years and older. The review of the literature suggested, among other health and social-psychological benefits, that those who volunteered experienced fewer illnesses and lived longer. It is believed that this improved state of physical health may be related to the increased levels of oxytocin (combats cortisol, increases feelings of connection, intensifies bonding), increased progesterone levels (normalizes blood sugar, natural anti-depressant, restores cells oxygen levels, etc.), and increased antibodies and fighter T-Cells (as previously noted), all of which would promote a healthier internal environment, preparing us better to fend off illness and possibly live longer.

Get a (Santa's) Helper's High

So, while you are running around, fretting about getting everything done in time for the holidays, feeling your blood pressure rise, your throat start to burn, and your neck muscles tightening to migraine proportions, remember to engage in simple, small acts of random kindness and generosity every day at strangers, open doors for people with parcels and children in strollers, let someone in to your lane during rush-hour traffic, throw some money into one or two of the Salvation Army Christmas Kettles you encounter in your travels....And watch yourself be quickly cured of all that ails you !!

Give freely,

Live Well, Live Long,

May the season be peaceful !!


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