Most of us have heard that it is ‘better to give than to receive’. Be it that it’s just the right thing to do or that you feel a need to contribute to a cause you care about, supporting that cause, or responding to that feeling of obligation really does bring you benefit, and not just in the after-life, or via karma – there are real, researched and proven health, financial and well-being benefits that start as soon as you begin giving your time, money or resources.

Around the early 70’s, behaviourists, psychologists and other scientists began researching the physiological responses of people who are generous with their time and resources. Their findings, some more surprising than others, are noted below and give some ‘food for thought’ in regards to improving your own quality of life through helping others.

Increase your pleasure

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) evidence shows conclusively that giving money to charities, or causes that you care about (helping a friend or family member, someone in your community), stimulates the mesolimbic pathways of your brain. This is the part of your brain responsible for responding to pleasure and reward. When activated it releases various ‘feel good’ hormones, one of which is oxytocin – also known as the ‘hug hormone’ and ‘cuddle chemical’ – this hormone does lots of amazing things for you, it helps you to feel more connected to others, increases your feelings of empathy, lowers anxiety and increases feelings of well-being, and also plays a role in protecting your intestine from damage.

Improve your physical health

Not only does giving altruistically release hormones that help prevent illness and disease, it also lowers your blood pressure, stress and depression levels and increases your lifespan and the likelihood that you will take better physical care of yourself. An American study in 1999, and a similar one again in 2003 showed that people who were 55 or older and volunteered for two or more organisations were almost half as likely to die in the following 5 years as those who didn’t – even after controlling for age, exercise habits, general health and negative health habits like smoking. A further study by Rachel Piferi at John Hopkins University and Kathleen Lawler of the University of Tenessee in 2006 showed that those who provided social support to others had lower blood pressure than those who didn’t.

Intensify your feelings of gratitude

Have you heard that a ‘gratitude attitude’ will increase happiness and health? Studies in the US and the UK have shown that people who are thankful are more likely to exercise more, be more optimistic and feel better about their lives overall than those who don’t stop to count their blessings. Helping others either financially or with your time and actions makes you more aware of what you have and gives you an outlet for expressing gratitude which boosts your positivity, reinforces your kindness and strengthens your bonds with other people – all things that have been shown to increase our own physical and mental health. 

Boost your own finances

There are options to make donations from your wage or pension before tax is deducted, this can provide tax breaks by reducing your taxable income. Donating land, property or shares – even if you sell them for less than their market value and give the proceeds to charity – can provide income tax relief by way of reducing your self-assessment bill, result in a tax refund or even changing your tax code so you pay less income tax over the course of the year. Conversely, a 2009 Harvard study titled ‘Feeling Good About Giving: The Benefits (and Costs) of Self-Interested Charitable Behaviour” found that monetary incentives for donations of money or time changed the nature of the reason people were giving, prompting them to engage in a ‘cost-benefit analysis’ rather than focusing on the altruistic reasons for their act and this ‘corrupts social motivations.’ It is unclear if this, in turn, detracts from the other benefits noted, but it did show that people who were rewarded monetarily for their donations and support were likely to stop once the financial gain ceased. 

Enhance your surroundings

When we raise the standard of living for those less fortunate than us, in turn, we help raise the standard of living for everyone in that community – including ourselves. We help to decrease crime, inequality, poor education – the list goes on and covers almost all social problems. We make our communities better places to live when we assist in the provision of goods and services to those who need help accessing them. Giving – time, money or resources – promotes a sense of trust and cooperation which strengthens our communities and relational ties. Who doesn’t want to live somewhere a little nicer, friendlier and with more opportunities for all?

Promote generosity in your children, friends and family

Like most parental behaviour, when children see us acting in certain ways they are likely to emulate it – especially if they can see it makes us happy (which giving does). By making sure your kids know about your charitable efforts they are more likely to adopt a giving nature as they mature. The same is true for our friends and family – we can create a ‘ripple effect’ or begin what is known as a ‘positive feedback loop’ in our community as well as within ourselves. People who give, feel better about themselves – physically, mentally and emotionally and people who feel happy give more, so a positive cycle is started and reinforced within our physiology. In regards to our networks, a study published in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Science’ showed that when one person behaved generously it inspired others who observed that behaviour to behave similarly towards others, sometimes resulting in that person influencing dozens or even hundreds of people, some of whom the instigating person may not even know or have met. That’s not to say you should boast about your monthly donation to charity, but also, don’t be shy to talk about it if giving comes up in the conversation!

Regular giving from our supporters helps us keep our services free for vulnerable people.