Benefits of Benevolence

It’s a message fitting for the season and one that gives a whole new meaning to the adage, to give is to receive. Acts of generosity, research shows, don’t just lead to emotional satisfaction; they actually promote physical health and healing. It’s more than good karma of course.

There’s evolutionary rationale to the warm fuzzies we get when we exercise our altruistic muscle. It behooved our ancestors to get along well and exhibit cooperation within their tribal groups. Even as the scale of social community expanded over time, a confluence of cultural motivation and genetic incentive appear to have still favored “pro-social” behaviors. We’re designed to be socially conscious and collaborative creatures. Not surprisingly, physiological incentives to support this orientation have been selected for over time.

As a recent New York Times article highlighted, volunteering and other generous acts won’t cure a disease, but they can help people with serious conditions cope with physical pain and ease their symptoms. Other research associates volunteering with “noteworthy decreases in levels of blood pressure, stomach acid and cholesterol counts” as well as higher levels  of immunity-boosting immunoglobin A. Studies have even linked volunteerism with a lower risk of mortality in the elderly – even after adjusting for “health habits, physical functioning, religious attendance, and social support.” Researchers have long observed the emotional advantages conferred by a generous disposition. The so-called “helper’s high” is rooted in the release of endorphins. In keeping with this effect, those who volunteer report fewer stress symptoms and lower rates of insomnia.

Amazingly, even witnessing acts of charity have been shown to influence immune response – a phenomenon labeled the “Mother Teresa effect.” Study participants who watched scenes of Mother Teresa helping others showed an increase in salivary immunoglobulin A, the front line of immune defense. (Gives a whole new meaning to the concept of “feel-good” programming.) The practice of generosity appears to benefit the giver, recipient and the surrounding social community. Not a bad thought for the holiday season – that we’re drawn to peace, love and cooperation? The idea maybe explains why they broadcast A Christmas Carol no less than three hundred and twelve times between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Of course, we don’t recommend simply living vicariously through the exhibitions of T.V or the transformations of crusty Victorian misers. Nonetheless, perhaps those reruns of holiday classics aren’t such a guilty pleasure after all.

Finally, it should be said during this season of commercial overload that giving shouldn’t be about obligation or necessarily about material exchange. Sulky obligation doesn’t exactly inspire health and happiness in the giver – or gratitude and well-being of the recipient. It’s the grating irony of the holidays these days that the hoopla too often drains the spirit instead of feeds it. We certainly don’t want to give the impression that anyone should drop what they’re doing and run to the next advertised 24-hour super sale or community soup kitchen to don an apron, but if it’s what you feel personally and joyfully called to do, then a big thumbs up! Although studies in altruism have focused on volunteerism, generous acts can also be as small and personal as making your partner’s favorite meal, holding the door for a stranger or offering encouraging words to someone going through difficult times.

The idea here, we sense, is less about any particular action than it is about mindset. When it comes to benevolence benefit, it’s truly the thought that counts. Adopting a magnanimous attitude can lift us out of the limited and ultimately lonely individualism that can feel like and truly be a burden. As one study cited by the NYT explains, common “themes” in volunteers’ feedback include the satisfaction of “’making a connection’” and living with “’a sense of purpose.’” Fostering genuine health involves more than pampering ourselves or marking off suggested acts for personal well-being. Giving of ourselves places our potential for happiness outside of the restricted confines of our own lives. It extends our potential for fulfillment and joy beyond the daily details of our lives to the good we can see and do in all that’s around us.

Have you felt the “helper’s high”? What role do you think generosity plays in personal wellness? Let us know your thoughts.

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