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Happiness, Preventive Health

The Happiness Map: Giving Back

Star Christmas Lights Hanging from an EaveThe holidays are the perfect time for charitable acts. And this year, in particular, it feels like exactly the right thing to do.

Whether it’s volunteering, helping, or donating–it just feels good, right? Well, I’d like to draw your attention to a little side benefit of altruism: research is showing that people who help others actually become happier, healthier, and live longer than people who don’t.

Indulge me as I share a personal story.

My husband was in the grocery store a few months ago with both our boys. He did a decent shop; the bill came to well over $100…and then realized he’d left his wallet at home. Ugh.

I mean, if you’ve ever tried to go grocery shopping with two young boys in tow, you know what a huge feat it was that he even made it to the checkout in one piece, without destroying half the canned-goods section or selling one of our children in the process. As he struggled at the counter, searching in vain for his wallet, and then realized he’d have to leave all his hard-won, tidily bagged groceries at the store…the person behind him in line quietly paid for his bill. The whole thing. Without making a big fanfare. When my husband realized what was happening, he was blown over with gratitude, and begged the woman for her contact info so he could send her the payment. But she wouldn’t have it.

Random acts of kindness like that do exist. My husband spent the rest of the day with a completely new feeling about his fellow human beings.

But you know who probably felt better? The woman who’d paid for some poor frazzled dad’s groceries.

Research shows that being altruistic conveys mental health benefits: it reduces depression, it improves happiness and well-being. In fact, giving help is more significantly associated with better mental health than was receiving help.

But volunteering appears to improve physical health and longevity, too. Several studies have demonstrated this. In one study of more than 2000 people, conducted over the course of a decade, the people who volunteered had lower mortality rates, and if they were “high volunteers”–meaning two or more organizations–their mortality rate was reduced by 44% over non-volunteers. This was after controlling for other factors like mobility, chronic conditions, social support. This was a bigger effect than exercising  4 times weekly (which reduced mortality by 30%) and only slightly smaller than the reduction associated with not smoking—49%.

If you’ve ever volunteered or helped a charity, I think you know what I’m talking about when I use the term “helper’s high”. And now there’s research to show that this is a real thing.

And the research is nice. But, truth be told, this is something people have long known.

ebenezer-scrooge

Charles Dickens knew about this in 1843 when he created the character Ebenezer Scrooge. The ultimate reformed curmudgeon who changed his ways…and once he started helping people less fortunate than himself, he became giddy with joy, jumping and feeling younger and more vibrant.

But we can go even further back to see the wisdom of altruism:

If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.

If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.

If you want happiness for a month, get married.

If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.

If you want happiness for a lifetime…help someone else

-Chinese Proverb

There are a plethora of ways to give back this season: what’s your favorite?

Happy Holidays, everyone.

xox

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About Kim Foster

Dr. Kim Foster is a writer, family doctor, and mom.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “The Happiness Map: Giving Back

  1. Wow. I can’t believe she didn’t want to paid back! What a great story. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Kelly | December 21, 2012, 10:52 am
  2. Dr Kim,

    First off; Merry Christmas to you and yours – and, in case I don’t catch up with you beforehand – a Happy New Year as well. 🙂

    Second…

    What a great story – it left me with a big grin on my face. No wonder your husband had a completely new feeling about his fellow human beings. I can’t say that anything like that has ever happened to me, nor has the opportunity arisen where I were able to consider such an act, but you’re right; even doing little things makes you feel great.

    As far as donating goes; I give regularly to the Cancer Center of Eastern Ontario, but what I enjoy most this time of year is making a donation to Plan Canada (https://plancanada.ca/). The gifts are a little unusual; goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits, mango trees, etc – you’re providing a family (and in some cases a village) with the means to provide for themselves over the long term – which I think is pretty cool.

    Anyhow, that’s my 2 cents worth. Hope you’re going to get some time to relax over the holiday season. 🙂

    Paul

    Posted by Paul | December 21, 2012, 12:54 pm
    • Thanks, Paul! I love Plan Canada too, we have spent a lot of time perusing the catalog of gifts–only trouble is, some of the gifts are so cool-sounding, my 7 yr old wants one too. Like the bee-keeping kit. Ha!

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours, too!
      Kim

      Posted by Kim Foster | December 28, 2012, 8:58 pm

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Dr. Kim Foster, MD. (photo credit: Tamea Burd Photography)

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