Winter is full of holiday cheer, which sometimes fades as the cold weather drags on. But, here is some science that might brighten our February. Research shows that good deeds – our holiday gift-giving, caring and taking time for others is not only good for our mood, it is good for our health too. These health benefits last long after the holidays are over.
In his new book, The Five Side-Effects of Kindness, Author David Hamilton refers to the spirit of giving as a ‘Helpers High.’ It makes us feel happier, more optimistic, and a greater sense of self-worth. Research confirms doing good deeds kind acts can alleviate both depression and anxiety symptoms.’ An evening of helping out often works better than an antidepressant,’ says Hamilton.
In studies of the longer-term effects, older adults report that generous acts improved their psychological well-being and life satisfaction. In 2008, a well-being study by the UK Government Office for Science found giving is one of the top five ways to improve our mental health.
Perhaps it is not surprising that doing good deeds for others is good for our psyche, but the physical health benefits are pretty impressive too.
For example, ongoing stress has been linked to early onset of age-related illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and poor immune function. However, we may be able to proactively prevent many of these damaging effects. In one study, older adults who volunteered at a nursery to give massages to infants had significantly reduced levels of stress hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine) after helping out.
Ongoing stress can accelerate cellular aging in premenopausal women. Aging cells eventually become inactive, heightening the risk of cancer and death. In a research review in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Stephen Post suggests that generous actions may offset premature cellular aging caused by ongoing stress.
In his book, The Healing Power of Doing Good, Alan Luks summarizes a number of studies in which do-gooders reported fewer colds, better sleep, relief of pain symptoms, and even faster recovery times after surgery.
These remarkable benefits may occur in part because of the neuro-chemical cocktail that our brains enjoy when we give. Kind actions elevate levels of endorphins and dopamine, the body’s natural painkillers and stress relievers. Our brains also release ‘the love hormone,’ oxytocin. Oxytocin not only makes us feel closer to others, it lowers our blood pressure. Neuro-development expert, Kim Barthel explains, ‘These chemicals turn on all the parts of your DNA that help you become resilient, healthier and better able to cope with stress.’
If you are looking to brighten up your winter, Hamilton explains that any form of giving, no matter how small, is beneficial. Volunteering, charitable donations, or helping out friends and family can improve your health and mood.
If you are wondering why the most helpful people you know are not always the healthiest, giving does have a downside. Research shows that the positive health benefits of giving tend to decline if we over do it. Feeling overburdened by our obligations can result in emotional and physical stress and negate the health benefits of our helping behaviors.
In an Australian health study, Timothy Windsor and colleagues measured the mental and physical health of more than 2,000 adults in their mid-sixties. The study found an optimal range in which volunteers received the most psychological and health benefits from helping others.
Adults who volunteered at least 100 hours per year experienced the greatest health benefits. These benefits did not significantly increase for those who volunteered more than 100 hours. However, benefits decreased after 800 hours per year.
In other words, older adults who volunteered between two and fifteen hours per week enjoyed better physical health, more life satisfaction, and greater psychological well-being than those who volunteered less than two hours or more than fifteen hours per week.
Volunteers with workloads greater than fifteen hours per week reported higher levels of stress. The toll of their higher stress levels was reflected in their poorer mental and physical health scores.
The Windsor study’s optimal range of giving should not be considered prescriptive, however. Rather, we each have our own optimal range of giving. Helping others may be important to us. But if we feel overburdened by the excessive demands that others put on us (or that we put on ourselves), we may be compromising our own health.
Often when we feel overburdened, we neglect to take care of ourselves. The simplest solution would be to decrease our helping activities to minimize stress. However, it may be difficult to take time away from commitments, even when we feel overwhelmed.
Early in my career, I volunteered as a sexual abuse counselor. The work was gratifying and important to me, but overwhelming at times too. As my very wise supervisor used to say, ‘When you give of yourself, self-care is not a luxury. It is a priority and a necessity.’