Science says generosity makes you happier, healthier

Dene Moore
National Affairs Contributor
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Giving can make you happier and healthier. Science says so.

While conventional wisdom has long held that it is better to give than to receive, a team led by British Columbia-based psychologists has found that charitable donation has measurable health benefits.

The team, which included researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of California Irvine, first looked at nearly 200 older Americans who had been diagnosed with high blood pressure.

They found that those who donated to charity had significantly lower blood pressure two years into the study than those who did not.

Interest piqued, the team then enlisted a group of 73 older adults with high blood pressure. They randomly assigned them to either donate three payments of $40 to charity over three consecutive weeks or to spend the same amount on themselves in that period.

They compared the subjects’ blood pressure at the outset of the six-week study, after four weeks and at the end.

“What we found was that participants who were randomly assigned to spend … on others, had significantly lower blood pressure at the end of the study, as compared to participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on themselves,” says Ashley Whillans, a doctoral student at UBC and the lead author of the study to be published soon in the journal Health Psychology.

And the differences were not insignificant.

The variation was similar to the benefits of other common blood pressure interventions, such as exercise and medication, Whillans tells Yahoo Canada News.

“This study was really exciting and provided the first initial evidence — we think the strongest evidence to date — that spending money on others, using our money to help other people, could have clinically significant benefits to physical health,” she says.

The study wasn’t large enough to offer a conclusive reason why this is the case, but it suggests that building social connection through giving insulates the giver from the effects of stress.

“It suggests to us that helping others might help us not be so physically affected by the stress that happens in our everyday lives,” she says.

An earlier study at UBC involved handing students on campus envelopes containing either $5 or $20, along with instruction either to spend it on themselves or to spend it on someone else.

At the end of the day, participants were asked a series of questions.

“What we found was that people randomly assigned to spend money on others were significantly happier at the end of the day than people who were randomly assigned to spend the money on themselves,” says Lara Aknin, a psychology professor at Simon Fraser University and co-author of the study.

She calls it the “happiness boost of giving.”

A later, similar study of children reinforced the effect. This time, the participants either received a gift or gave one. Their facial expressions were filmed and later reviewed according to a coded seven-point scale from sad to happy.

“Both with kids and adults, when people are giving they’re smiling more than when they’re either receiving, for kids, or spending money on themselves, for the adults,” Aknin says.

A study for the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame found lower rates of depression, better health and greater happiness among those who donate to charity.

Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, initiative researchers who wrote the book “The Paradox of Generosity,” say giving triggers neurochemical systems that increase pleasure and reduce stress.

A 2006 study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that when people give to charities, it activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust — the “joy of giving” effect.

It all suggests that Canadians shouldn’t overlook the benefits of giving, Aknin says.

“What this research suggests people do is take the opportunity to give when they can. Our data is suggesting is that it will make them feel better.”