The holiday season has always been associated with giving back. Between gift giving and an increased interest in volunteering, it’s part of what makes that time of year so special. But as good as it can feel to be on the receiving end, it can feel even better knowing how much of an impact your good deeds have on others. And it’s not just a good feeling that can come from these positive actions. As it turns out, giving back has real benefits that can help improve your health in the long term. So if you’ve been thinking about giving back, do it—your health can’t wait!
GIVING: AN ACT OF SCIENCE
Humans are generally social by nature, and our desire to help people is as deeply rooted as our need for food and water—it’s a part of life. From a psychological standpoint, the chemicals the brains release when we give back, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, are all responsible for feelings of happiness and motivation. Your brain is literally wired to feel good when you do good, and because you want to continue to feel this way, the more you give back, the more likely you are to continue this behavior. Because the brain is connected to your body’s other functions, the release of these neurochemicals doesn’t just help your mood—it’s actually responsible for a lot more.
Obviously, maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine is the best thing you can do for your heart, but giving back provides its own benefits to this vital organ. Adults who volunteer have been shown to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and to have an overall lower risk for heart disease and stroke.
ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION
The feel-good chemicals that your brain releases when giving back can help boost your mood. Plus, the oxytocin that is released helps to create feelings of bonding and belonging that are important for good mental health.
Giving back has been linked to a lower mortality rate among adults, especially older adults, who can feel a sense of purpose from giving back or volunteering their time. A study from the Corporation for National and Community Service showed that seniors who volunteered were 88 percent less likely to feel isolated, and 84 percent had stable or improved health.
SIMPLE WAYS TO GET INVOLVED
Now that you understand some of the benefits of giving back, you might be wondering how you can get started. Regardless of your financial means, physical limitations, or time restraints, there are plenty of ways you can make a difference in the lives of others—and feel good doing it.
Those who have the time and means to volunteer have a lot to gain from the experience. It can be highly rewarding, especially if you can find a place to volunteer that involves something you are already interested in. Sites like VolunteerMatch allow you to search for opportunities in your area based on specific categories such as Health & Medicine, Community, and Children & Youth. Local organizations post opportunities to the site with a brief description of what will be asked of volunteers so you can be prepared.
MAKE A FINANCIAL DONATION
It’s not always feasible to donate financially to organizations, but if you’re able, it’s a great way to show support for causes that you care about. Nonprofits rely heavily on financial donations in order to support staff and accomplish projects. If you want to make sure your money is being put to good use before you make any commitments, resources such as Charity Navigator and CharityWatch allow you to search for charities by name or cause, and both offer ratings and financial information so you can see exactly how your donation will be used.
LEND A HELPING HAND
Giving back doesn’t have to be complicated—it can be as simple as helping out a neighbor, a relative, or a friend with whatever he or she may need. If you have an elderly neighbor or family member who has difficulty getting around, consider helping that person with tasks like running errands or mowing the lawn. If a friend is having trouble at work or is struggling with a problematic life event, offer a sympathetic ear. You don’t have to think too far outside the box when it comes to giving; a little goes a long way.
GIVE A LITTLE, GET A LOT
While giving back can do a lot of good for you and those you’re helping, be careful not to spread yourself too thin. There is such a thing as giving back too much, and if you find your volunteer or financial commitments to be stressful, it’s probably a sign to cut back a little bit.
Giving back is important any time of year, but as the season of giving approaches, take a moment to think of ways you can make a difference in your community, in the lives of those you love, and, ultimately, in your own life—your recipients and your health will thank you.