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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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August 29, 2013

The Power of Giving: What We Get When We Give

By Mark Sisson
57 Comments

GivePretty much every post on Mark’s Daily Apple takes up the question of how we can be happier, healthier and more productive in the modern world. We eat well, exercise effectively, play frequently, sleep deeply, socialize meaningfully, create freely, de-stress religiously and sun ourselves daily. They’re the tickets to a well-rounded and healthy life today, and they all not-so-coincidentally supported the survival of our ancestors. They’re the primal stuff of life – of what it means to be physically and cognitively human. I think we’d be remiss to not include in this list the also very human concept of giving.

By giving, let me say, I don’t necessarily mean money. Money by itself can help make a lot of useful and beneficial things happen – for an individual or for an organization that helps individuals in some essential way. What I’m talking about here is service – the time, energy and effort we give to help other people and causes. Of course, we become a positive force in the universe when we do so. We help out a neighbor, spare another forest acre, enhance a community’s hope and opportunity. We make a friend’s day. The evolutionary undercurrent here is mutual benefit. Sure, we’re helping others, but we’re also benefiting ourselves in ways we might not expect.

Sure, we get that gratifying “helper’s high,” the blast of feel good hormones such as oxytocin. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, however. In an employee study (PDF) conducted by United Health Group, those who volunteered scored better on nine measures of emotional wellness that included “personal independence, capacity for rich interpersonal relationships and overall satisfaction with life.” Of those who volunteered, the majority said they felt less stress and nearly all reported that their service enhanced their “sense of purpose in life.”

Research has found significant benefits for older adults in particular. In a randomized clinical trial involving Baltimore’s Experience Corps, Johns Hopkins researchers observed physical and cognitive benefits in older adult volunteers who tutored in urban schools. Participants reported significant gains in perception of social support and connectedness as well as physical strength and mobility. Another Carnegie Mellon University study found volunteering was associated with a 40% lower risk of high blood pressure in older adults. It’s possible the kind of volunteering can influence gains as well. Larger scale research out of Cornell University showed older adults who volunteered with an environmental stewardship program were less likely to experience depression in later years. The lower risk was 50% for environmental volunteers and 10% for non-environmental causes/services. Finally, research shows volunteerism significantly lowers mortality risk in one study by over 60%.

For all the focus on older adults, however, people in any age group experience advantages. Adolescent in a University of British Columbia study showed lower BMI, inflammation and cholesterol readings following a ten week volunteer period. Emotional and physical changes appeared to go hand in hand. As the director of the study noted, “[Those] who reported the greatest increases in empathy, altruistic behavior and mental health were the ones who also saw the greatest improvements in their cardiovascular health.”

The number of hours devoted to volunteering each week doesn’t appear to influence most benefits, but the length of years does matter. As you can imagine, the longer you do it, the greater the benefit. Likewise, those who volunteer for self-focused reasons didn’t benefit compared to non-volunteers. Apparently, we can intellectually know we’ll benefit, but the advantages come when we let go of that intention.

It all makes perfect sense. Genuine giving isn’t an act from the self as much as a participation in the world and relationships around us. Anthropologists who’ve studied modern hunter-gatherer groups explain how band members’ identities are created through participation in the group. They become individuals within the context of the group, growing and accepted in relationship to the group, within an evolving give and take investment in the group.

I don’t consider myself a religious person but was always intrigued by the idea of vocation put forth by writer and theologian Frederick Buechner: “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” The happiest and most fulfilled people I know are those who feel they practice a vocation in life – whether or not it’s how they earn their living.

We just aren’t wired to have hours of time to wallow in chronic and ineffectual solipsism. Giving in whatever sense – formal volunteering, help to friends and neighbors, environmental work – helps us get out of heads. A larger cause (even if it’s just in a one-on-one exchange) than ourselves budges out the self-chatter. We can be in the moment and take “a vacation from our problems.”

In an age when we build an online “profile” and stylize our image to our heart’s (and ambition’s) content, we can more than ever lose sight of where and how we’re really made. We’re not our assembled “likes” and “shares” or our crafted “timelines.” We’re not our collection of pithy tweets. We’re our in-the-flesh contributions.

In giving of yourself – whether through parenthood, vocational service or other social commitments/relationships – I think you gain a certain confidence in your own worth and ability. We can chat ourselves up in our own minds from now until doomsday, but all the psychological pomp and primping is just grandiosity on its own. In acting and exchanging, in offering one’s self and service – that’s where the rubber meets the road. It’s where we’re truly tried and tested – where we grow. Ultimately, it illuminates the divide between grandiosity and gravitas.

We take the lessons – the perspective and humility and all the other goodies – back to our own lives. In the words of Norman Vincent Peale, “When you become detached mentally from yourself and concentrate on helping other people with their difficulties, you will be able to cope with your own more effectively. Somehow, the act of self-giving is a personal power-releasing factor.” In part, the benefits come from our enhanced empathy. As author of The Power of Empathy, Katherine Ketcham, explains, those “who have high relational skills are more successful personally and professionally.” We can be more effective in our work roles and emotional relationships. Overall, we enjoy a more fulfilling life and enhanced well-being. What could be more Primal than that?

As for what you can do in the MDA community, think about this. The Mark’s Daily Apple health challenge begins next month. How could you inspire someone to join or encourage someone who’s already part of the community? How might you pay it forward? I think it’s a great time to spread the word and let others find inspiration (and solutions) within the community. Stay tuned…

What are your thoughts on the power of volunteering? Do you have favorite ways and means of giving? What do you enjoy giving of your self and time? What do you feel you receive? I’ll look forward to reading your feedback. Thanks for reading, everyone, and have a good end to the week.

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57 Comments on "The Power of Giving: What We Get When We Give"

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Groktimus Primal
3 years 30 days ago

I’d volunteer at a soup kitchen but it would never work. I’d keep yelling, “No soup for you!”.

Amy
Amy
3 years 30 days ago

🙂

Madama Butterfry
Madama Butterfry
3 years 29 days ago

NEXT!

Jim2
3 years 28 days ago

LOL! I make really good soup at home just so I can play Soup Natzi with the rest of my family.

BGottfried
BGottfried
3 years 30 days ago

I definitely agree that donating time or concern to another person is essential for optimal health; nothing takes me out of a slump like a chance to help someone else 🙂 For anyone who’s interested in WHY we feel better when we do altruistic actions, I’d highly recommend The Moral Animal by Robert Wright. It’s an introduction to Evolutionary Psychology and helps to explain how selection pressure could have brought us to a state where actions that don’t seem to directly help us are encouraged by our brains.

Jo
Jo
3 years 30 days ago

Thanks for the book recommendation; sounds interesting!

Elisa
3 years 30 days ago

I think this is an amazing post! Our society today is inclined to selfishness, and we are told to do “whatever makes us happy”. What is really going to matter when you come to the end of your life? When you look back on the way you lived, what is it you want to see?

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Taylor Rearick
3 years 30 days ago
Awesome post. Great to see community service to being addressed on here! There are organizations out there for everyone to get involved. Whether you want to teach a child guitar, go on nature walks with elderly, or clean up the LA river, you will find something catering to a specific group in need. Through volunteering I learned that any person can flourish if they are given a fair chance, and it is our responsibility to provide that chance for each other. If you enjoy shredding check out STOKED.ORG. I volunteered with them for a year and had some amazing experiences.… Read more »
Kael Varnson
Kael Varnson
3 years 30 days ago

I’m glad you framed giving in terms of our own self-interest. I don’t believe in selfless sacrifices – giving should be done in response to one’s own personal, selfish values.

Wenchypoo
Wenchypoo
3 years 30 days ago
I don’t know if I picked the wrong person to help, or maybe the wrong method of helping, but I tried to save my neighbor, who’s slowly dying from a bad heart, diabetes, and osteoarthritis. I ltook him my best books about the Paleo diet, the Atkins diet, and Gary Taubes’s book “Why We Get Fat.” Last month, a strong wind blew through here and knocked the curb-side trash cans over–his was next to mine. When I had gone out to right the cans, guess what was right on top of the trash heap in his can? Yep–those books I… Read more »
Shary
Shary
3 years 30 days ago
I’d say your method was flawed. Why would think the books you gave him would “save” him, or that he’s not worth being “saved” because he didn’t want them? I agree he should have given them back, but he probably didn’t want to seem unappreciative. He undoubtedly thought you’d never find out that he threw them away. You have a great opportunity to help a person in need, which is what this article is about. Don’t give up on this man just because your initial effort turned out to be a tad misguided. Sometimes the best way to find out… Read more »
2Rae
2Rae
3 years 30 days ago

Wenchypoo,
Enough of that dragging people kicking and screaming onto the road to better health? I agree, put it out there and let it go. However, I’d take all those great books out of the garbage!
And thank you for taking care of the local strays.
I enjoy your comments.

Amy
Amy
3 years 30 days ago
Wenchypoo – We’re all on our own journeys and different places on those journeys. If someone is stuck (from your point of view), they have to recognize a)that they are stuck and b)want to move on. In other words, people have to be ready to both ask the questions *and* act on the answers. My Mother is 72 and currently lives in a nursing home after abusing her good health. In many ways, she’s lived a highly unsuccessful life, but it wasn’t because people (including my sister and myself) didn’t try to help her. She couldn’t even see, unfortunately, that… Read more »
George
George
3 years 29 days ago

Nice guy?

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Camilla
3 years 30 days ago

I came across your article today and it truly reflects my point of view so thank you for putting it so well! A great read. Will be sharing the link with friends and my fellow fitness volunteers on Learncliki 🙂 Thanks again!

Diane
Diane
3 years 30 days ago
I play old time music in a weekly jam session. In summer we play outdoors at a park. The look on people’s faces as they walk by is priceless. It’s like people have never seen spontaneous, free, acoustic music being played before. People will walk up and their babies and children will start dancing. After a tune the adults might clap, but we ignore that because we’re not performing, we’re just playing music together and don’t expect anything in return, not even applause. It’s not much as far as giving and helping others goes, but it does make the fun… Read more »
Judy G
Judy G
3 years 30 days ago

Great post Mark. There are times when it does the heart good to be of service to others. I volunteer for a local hospice. I have gotten to know such wonderful and interesting people on this part of my journey. It truly is a blessing that goes both ways.

Matt
3 years 30 days ago

I remember the time a person came up to me in a parking lot because they wanted to wash my windows for five bucks so they could use the cash to buy a sandwich. Well, there was a sandwich spot in the parking lot so I just offered him to buy a sandwich instead. That’s when he told me he just wanted to buy some drugs because he just got out of prison…

Nack
Nack
3 years 30 days ago

Learning to Give – becoming a Giving Thing – is not only healthy: it’s the purpose of every piece of human desire. Only when We choose personal benefit over benefiting the whole system does disaster occur.

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[…] Pretty much every post on Mark’s Daily Apple takes up the question of how we can be happier, healthier and more productive in the modern world. We eat well, exercise effectively, play frequently, sleep deeply, socialize meaningfully, create freely, de-stress religiously and sun ourselves daily. They’re the tickets to a well-rounded and heal… Mark’s Daily Apple […]

Lisa
Lisa
3 years 30 days ago

This is a great post. I started the Primal life style about 3 months ago. At first it was just about the food. But it is slowly becoming more truly about all aspects of Lifestyle. This subject of Giving has given me even more food for thought. I love this website – it is informative, interesting, encouraging and thought-provoking. Love, love, love.

Debbie
3 years 30 days ago

I needed to be reminded of this, for sure!

Sometimes as a working mom who’s also going to school, I get overwhelmed and think I don’t have “time” to bless someone else.

I have an older gentleman that I need to assist today, and while I want to do it, I keep finding other stuff to do. But I know that when I finally get myself over to his house, I will be the one who is blessed, and I’ll really enjoy meeting him!

Time for me to get off the computer 🙂

Nocona
Nocona
3 years 30 days ago

I always feel better giving than receiving. I’ve noticed a lot of people are actually uncomfortable receiving something. Receiving something gratefully is also an art…

fifer
fifer
3 years 30 days ago
As a traditional musician I had come across people mentioning that a rare or valuable old instrument they played had been given them by their mentor or teacher and I always thought, that seems excessive. But now I have a really keen young student and they have one of my best instruments (worth a couple of thousand at least) on “permanent loan”, it’s an instrument that I would use for recording and performing if I had it here but I kind of like knowing that they are getting good use out of it – I can’t see myself asking for… Read more »
Jay
Jay
3 years 30 days ago

Since retiring 7 years ago, I have been volunteering two days a week at a local hospital. I really enjoy the work and the camaraderie gained with staff and patients.
I can get as much as 12,000 steps (6 miles) of walking in my 4 hr.x2 shift.
It’s a real good feeling of giving back!

Margo from Denver
Margo from Denver
3 years 30 days ago
I’m a 69 year old widow who still works full time but I also like to volunteer. A few years ago when my husband became ill and very dependent on me, I felt I was being smothered by his needs, so I started volunteering every-other-Saturday at a Cat Shelter. I use my talents (computer database typing) and do all their database entries for the cats and their adoptions. That was 8 years ago and I still volunteer there. I’ve met a lot of wonderful, caring people who donate a lot of time and energy for our little four-legged creatures who… Read more »
Christina
Christina
3 years 30 days ago
Talk about heart-healthy living! 🙂 True, true, a thousand times true. My ultimate goal is to work for a non-profit that specializes in assisting low-income families, the homeless or victims of domestic violence. While I’m working on making that my full-time job someday, I volunteer in the meantime. Whether it’s cooking for/serving dinner at a shelter or volunteering to paint faces at an event for homeless children, I give with my time. I’m a child of a single parent (1 of 4 kids) and I am paying for my own college education while living on my own and working full-time.… Read more »
Anivia Build
3 years 30 days ago

I totally agree, helping others is without a doubt one of the best ways to help yourself. This is something that Gary Vaynerchuk often mentions as the source of his success. Lend someone a cup of sugar every now and then!

Penelope
3 years 29 days ago
The power and importance of giving is truly essential. What can be more human than the act of giving? And yet the corporate world attempts to distort this natural virtue and impulse of man and turn it into an elaborate way to increase profits and to undermine the value of human labour. More and more volunteering is being employed as a way to extract free labour, and a method to get rid of the “burden” to pay people for a given job. As a result it is harder and harder to be able to work following your vocation, the unemployment… Read more »
Emily
3 years 29 days ago
This is a great perspective. We were meant to network together, to help each other out and be in a community. The warm fuzzies we get when we volunteer at a shelter, help a neighbor with a big home improvement project, or coach a little league team are all part of the grander scheme to encourage us to keep doing good things for ourselves. I don’t any formal volunteering (fall into that “not enough time” excuse), but I help out my friends when I can. I work out with them when they need the buddy-system motivation, look over resumes and… Read more »
Dave
Dave
3 years 29 days ago

I’ve always liked helping people, but the way “volunteering” was presented to me in high school was alienating. They made it sound like something you had to do to look good on college applications, or to convince adults you weren’t a trouble-maker. It was all very threatening and authoritarian. The idea that it’s natural and could be a joy, that never crossed their minds.

Jeff
Jeff
3 years 29 days ago

I’m fortunate to be able to share any excess vegatables that I grow in my garden with all my neighbors. It’s a great feeling taking them a sack and they are all so appreciative. It makes me want to expand so I can have more to give.

Zorica Vuletic
Zorica Vuletic
3 years 29 days ago
Right now, I have not had as much volunteer type work/experiences. However I do help a friend who has 4 kids. Since I do not enjoy kids I don’t offer to baby sit, but I will help out with some chores that grosses her out. eg. Taking maggot filled garbage out. (It was on the balcony, not in the apartment). She was practically gagging just looking at it. I thought it was nasty too, but I was able to wrap it up and take it out for her. I help in the capacity that I can. 😛 On another note:… Read more »
Dean Prather
3 years 29 days ago

Giving in non-monetary form is by far more fulfilling. Thanks for posting, I really enjoyed your post.

Erik Henze
Erik Henze
3 years 29 days ago

“Those who volunteered for self-oriented reasons had a mortality risk similar to nonvolunteers. Those who volunteered for other-oriented reasons had a decreased mortality risk, even in adjusted models.”
That’s what one of the referenced studies found. So if you’re reading this article, decide, ‘oh it’s primal and healthy to help people, I’m gonna go start now!’ It doesn’t work like that. Just a disclaimer.
Helping people and not telling anyone about it is where it’s at in my opinion.

Wucha
Wucha
3 years 29 days ago

“We’re not our assembled “likes” and “shares” or our crafted “timelines.” We’re not our collection of pithy tweets. We’re our in-the-flesh contributions.”

Sadly, I think a large portion of the younger generation (millennials and latter) have lost touch with this idea. Our society has given such merit to social media sites that as long as people can keep face on facebook or twiiter, they’re good to go. It’s getting rarer and rarer to see true friendships and real relationships.

Andrew
Andrew
3 years 29 days ago

Thank you, Mark, for this post and all that you do. Another word for what you’re writing about is “karma,” or as the Beatles sang it (I think it was their last recorded words as a band, actually): “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

So true. Give of yourself every day, if only understanding and compassion and thanks, and the universe will give back to you in kind. That’s pretty much all there is of first importance in the operator’s manual of life.

Josefin
Josefin
3 years 29 days ago

I volunteered in a church in Sthlm that acted as a dormitory for homeless people during the night. It was really interesting to notice how happy I always felt after working there. You could have thought that meeting all of these presumably devastated people would have made me depressed. But nothing could be more wrong. These people were so grateful for the help given and they loved just sitting down having a conversation. So for sure, giving, even if just a little, makes you very very happy:).

Ara
Ara
3 years 29 days ago
I used to volunteer a lot when I was younger and hated every minute of it. I did it because I was taught that it’s what “good people do.” I did it out of obligation and that’s not a good reason. Finally at one such event, after sharing my feelings with a woman and telling her that I would just prefer to write a big check she told me that all charities need money as well as volunteers. It’s a perfectly acceptable form of giving because all types of people are needed; those that can give of their time and… Read more »
Rob
Rob
3 years 29 days ago

Does anyone want to talk to me in private about psichological acupuncture?
i like this subject very much and i know a lot of information about it

Bev
Bev
3 years 29 days ago
I have never volunteered anywhere, and I deeply regret it. For the past few months I’ve been thinking seriously about getting involved. There are so many ways to volunteer–it’s not just soup kitchens. My small town has a list of more than 50 organizations that always want volunteers and the variety is large–it includes a homeless shelter, a rape hotline, schools, big brother/big sister, Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, an organization that packs breakfast for school children, help for veterans…the list goes on. If parents volunteer and you take your kid along–it provides them with a much bigger picture… Read more »
anna
anna
3 years 29 days ago
thinking that I too had never volunteered, suddenly thought about my weekly visits to my ex partner’s mother. Strange- as we never got on at all when I was with her son, but some time after my relationship finished a couple years back -she called me, I visited & have been back ever since. Take her shopping ( she’s housebound & needs a wheelchair or stick indoors) do some housework for her & even bathe her when she feels a shower is too chilly. Her son phones everyday & visits each weekend, but as he’s the only one I guess… Read more »
Susan Alexander
3 years 29 days ago
This is such a great post. You do quite a lot of giving, Mark, by making this awesome site available to the world, for free. The giving does indeed seem to have enhanced your life – I mean, just look at you! In years past, I did a lot of organized volunteer work (in a pediatric psych ward in a city hospital). It was an extraordinary experience – and also time-consuming and difficult to obtain in the first place (getting clearance took months and I had to be immunized against something like 20 different diseases!). My point is that volunteer… Read more »
Animanarchy
Animanarchy
3 years 29 days ago
Two night ago, around 4-5 in the morning, I was walking around because I couldn’t sleep. I had just raided a donation bin for clothes and found two t-shirts in it with the construction company CAT logo on them. Then, while walking past a pet store, I found an abandoned cat in a carrier outside the door with a bit of kibble in with it but no water. I carried it to a grocery store that was opened all night and got it a cup of water, then stayed with it for the night until the pet store was open,… Read more »
Animanarchy
Animanarchy
3 years 29 days ago

I’m wondering why this comment is awaiting moderation?? There’s no swearing and no links, and I’ve been commenting on this site for two and half years, obviously my email is cleared. What’s the deal??

Animanarchy
Animanarchy
2 years 6 months ago

Come to think of it, maybe the cat got put down, which would really suck. Maybe I should have taken on the responsibility of caring for it and finding it a home instead of entrusting it to the humane society. Staying up all night to send a nice cat to imprisonment awaiting execution is not ok.

Deb
Deb
3 years 28 days ago

Profound I was privileged to be part of a team that was focused on way to increase awareness within my community and one of the proposals that was submitted in an effort to stamp out crime that absolutely resonated with me and the whole group was the idea that as a group we could influence the community to stamp out crime and be the green stamps in the community each good deed committed with proper planning would eventually stamp out the bad deeds that more often than not were committed without any planning or fore-thought. Be the change!

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Steve
3 years 27 days ago
I am the wellness consultant at a great health food store in the Hudson Valley, in the beautiful Catskills. Every day someone walks in looking for a magic pill or potion to get rid of unwanted fat. I ask them a few questions and gently lead them to consider the Primal Life, writing down this magical website, and emphasizing the Success Stories. If they are so inclined, I suggest they save their money on pills they would have to buy again and again, and instead go to our freezer section and pick up a nice piece of grass fed beef.… Read more »
Animanarchy
Animanarchy
3 years 22 days ago

I read a great novel called My Side of the Mountain about a 14 year old boy living alone in the woods off the land that’s set near the Catskills.

Hal Knowles
3 years 27 days ago
Great post Mark! I agree wholeheartedly on the benefits of giving. While I think the more infrequent but major moments of giving are valuable, it may be the inexhaustible little minor moments that arise everyday which offer the most mutual benefit for both the giver and the receiver. These moments are everywhere we look and merely need your attention, first in consciousness and then in action. They can be as simple as explaining and guiding on a concept, process, or technology to a friend, relative, or coworker when they seem confused. For parents the most basic action, but all too… Read more »
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[…] Volunteering has been shown to have significant health benefits – from lower BMI, blood pressure, inflammation, and cholesterol to higher ratings of quality of life and happiness. Mark Sisson talks about the power of giving in his post found here. […]

Lyn, aka the "food lover" Ashby

Giving is a great thing and it’s definitely something that everyone should do. I think that any type of giving is amazing and it’s perfect for people everywhere. It’s great that these methods of giving will also help the people doing it not just the ones receiving the help.

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[…] The Power of Giving: What We Get  […]

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[…] for a fact, that some of you have hearts of gold, and it’s a tragedy that you aren’t more successful… Because you have the ability to impact so many people in such a positive way. Because […]

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