Any discussion of philanthropy usually focuses on how a giver can help others — other people, other organizations or entities, or even the world. But a growing body of scientific evidence demonstrates that acts of philanthropy strongly benefit the giver as well.
Researchers call these benefits the “helper’s high” and “giver’s glow.”
“Every great moral and spiritual tradition points to the truth that in the giving of self lies the discovery of a deeper self,” said Dr. Stephen Post, who was the keynote speaker at the Purposeful Planning Institute‘s 2013 Rendezvous, which I attended this month in Colorado.
“When the happiness, security and well-being of others become real to us, we come into our own,” Post said. “Creativity, meaning, resilience, health and even longevity can be enhanced as a surprising byproduct of contributing to the lives of others. This is perennial wisdom, and science now says it is so.”
Post is a professor of preventive medicine and bioethics at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. He focuses on the relationship between giving and happiness, longevity and health, and is the author of “The Hidden Gifts of Helping and Why Good Things Happen to Good People.”
According to brain scans, the mere thought of helping others by planning to make a donation makes people happier.
Such thoughts activate the mesolimbic pathway in the brain that is associated with happiness and production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Actual face-to-face helping also triggers areas of the brain associated with happiness.
In the United States, millions of adults volunteer their time to help other people or a specific cause. This “giving” population reports:
- An improved sense of well-being (89 percent).
- Lower stress levels (73 percent).
- Better physical health (68 percent).
- Enhanced emotional health (77 percent).
- Enriched sense of purpose in life (92 percent).
- Increased happiness (96 percent).
One of the top five factors contributing to lower depression rates is “giving to neighbors and communities,” according to a study conducted in Great Britain.
When researchers at Harvard University showed one group a film about Mother Teresa’s work and another group a neutral film, they were able to document an increase in the production of protective antibodies in those who watched the film about “giving.”
Volunteering frequently to help others is associated with delayed mortality among older adults, according to a Stanford University study.
Plus, a study of elders in assisted living shows that helping activities improved residents’ mental health by creating positive attitudes toward aging, a sense of connectedness, and improvements in feelings of control and life satisfaction, as well as decreased depression and mortality.
Authors of an often-cited longitudinal study in the San Francisco Bay Area concluded that a “giving” and “helping” orientation in high school predicted good mental and physical health well into late adulthood. The one-third of teens who valued contributing to society were much happier and healthier 50 years later.
Volunteer efforts through the workplace benefit employees as well as employers. Among employees who participate in workplace volunteer activities, 71 percent felt better about their employers, and 37 percent were very satisfied with the progression of their careers. Such engagement leads to improved recruitment and retention.
“It is one of the beautiful compensations of life,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “that no man can sincerely help another without helping himself.” Although philanthropy usually goes hand-in-hand with altruism, new evidence indicates that the giving of one’s time or treasure makes the world a better place for both giver and recipient.
“One thing I know,” said Albert Schweitzer, “the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”
Nonprofit of the month
Since 1995, Bright Beginnings has partnered with diverse organizations and volunteers to foster confident and nurturing caregivers of young children. Bright Beginnings offers a three-step facilitated visit program to assist families in acquiring the skills and strategies that maximize their child’s full development, helping to create the foundation for school readiness. In 2013, Bright Beginnings will reach more than 20,000 families throughout Colorado, the majority of whom are living in poverty. Go to brightbeginningsusa.org.
Bruce DeBoskey is a Colorado-based philanthropic strategist and adviser, helping businesses, foundations and families design and implement their philanthropic initiatives.