Talk of philanthropy usually centers on donations of money or time to help individuals, institutions and socially useful purposes — locally, nationally or globally. Such talk usually focuses on how a giver can help others and change the world.
Acts of philanthropy, however, are rarely totally selfless. They can greatly benefit the giver as well as the recipient. Researchers have documented this phenomenon, which they call the “helper’s high” or “giver’s glow.” These benefits can last a lifetime.
“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, 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.”
“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 byproduct of contributing to the lives of others. This has been traditional wisdom, and now science says it is so.”
Feeling happier, healthier
Brain scans show that people are made happier by simply thinking about making a donation to help others. This happens because thoughts of helping activate the area in the brain that is associated with happiness — the mesolimbic pathway. This in turn releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates the brain’s centers for reward and pleasure.
Actual face-to-face helping also triggers areas in the brain associated with happiness. A study of adults in the United States who volunteer their time to help others reports increased happiness in 96 percent of these volunteers when compared with their non-helping counterparts. The study also found:
■ 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 (92 percent)
Workplace volunteer efforts lead to improved recruitment and retention, benefiting employers as well as employees. Seventy-one percent of employees who participate in workplace volunteer activities feel positive about their employers.
More than a third of these employees were “very satisfied” with the progression of their careers. It is well documented that happy employees are more engaged, productive and likely to stay.
In addition, the act of giving helps people fight depression, according to a study conducted in Great Britain. “Giving to neighbors and communities” was cited as one of the top five factors associated with lower rates of depression in the studied population.
Thoughts of philanthropy also help people fight off disease. A study at Harvard University showed an increase in the production of protective antibodies, compared with a control group, in individuals who merely watched a film about the work of Mother Teresa in India.
Giving helps you live longer
According to a Stanford University study, frequent volunteering is associated with delayed mortality in older adults.
A different study measured the mental health of older individuals in assisted living facilities who were engaged in helping activities. These individuals enjoyed better mental health, including positive attitudes towards aging, improvements in feelings of control and life satisfaction, decreased depression and a sense of connectedness. They also enjoyed a lower rate of mortality.
Good mental and physical health in late adulthood can be predicted as early as high school. One-third of San Francisco Bay Area teens who placed value on their “giving” and “helping” contributions to society were much happier and healthier 50 years later, according to an often-cited longitudinal study.
“It is one of the beautiful compensations of life,” said essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, “that no man can sincerely help another without helping himself.”
Although philanthropy usually goes hand-in-hand with altruism, a growing body of scientific 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 physician and philosopher Albert Schweitzer, “the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”