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Doing something for others does something good for you, too

by Deidre Ashley

September 20, 2017 | From Sound Mind | The Jackson Hole News & Guide

On the tail end of one of the biggest and most meaningful events of the summer, Old Bill’s Fun Run for Charities, it’s hard not to think about the act of giving. And many of us have friends or family touched by the devastation of fires or flooding in the past several weeks, and have given to those causes as well.

It does feel good to give to those in need, to help others in some way. But did you know there are also physical and mental health benefits to giving?

The definition of altruism is the unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others. In other words, doing something for someone else with no expectation of anything in return.

The research shows generosity has benefits for the giver as well as the receiver. Helping others makes us happier. The great thing is that it does not have to be a financial donation for the giver to receive said benefits. Those same warm fuzzies also come when we give our time or energy.

Giving can also reduce your stress. That’s because actively engaging in activities takes your mind off your worries and gives you some perspective. Sometimes we feel better about our own circumstances when we compare our situation with what others are facing, creating an increased sense of gratitude and contentment.

Cultivating gratitude is said to be one of the keys to increasing overall happiness. In addition, feeling like you can do something may provide a sense of control in a stressful situation. It can also combat feeling alone in a problem because sharing responsibility builds connection.

Stronger social relationships may also be a benefit of giving. Doing something together with others for the greater good builds a strong sense of community. That social bond and empathy are necessary for communities to survive.

Meaningful social connections are also a major point in strong mental health. Giving is contagious and can have a ripple effect of generosity through the entire community. You probably have heard of the “pay it forward” theory. Researchers report that an incident of giving witnessed by others can spread up to three degrees. That means each incident can influence a handful of other people or maybe even hundreds. Powerful stuff.

Giving has also been linked to physical benefits such as a hormone release — specifically oxytocin, sometimes dubbed the “love hormone” — that can strengthen feelings of happiness, warmth and connection to others. The brain releases endorphins that can produce a positive feeling and help in reducing stress and lowering blood pressure. Some research goes so far as to suggest that being generous with your time, energy or money decreases depression and can actually help you live longer.

Interestingly, adverse effects can occur when people give beyond their means. Giving more than you have, whether it’s time, energy or money, actually increases resentment and stress and has the opposite effect of generosity in general. So give, but not more than you can afford. I picture this as similar to basic airplane safety rules: Make sure to put your own mask on before trying to help others.

Much of this information is obvious once examined. I challenge you to pay attention the next time you are around generosity to see if this is true. Note the generosity you witness and pay it forward by doing something nice for someone else, and see how you feel after.

Deidre Ashley is executive director of the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center. She is a licensed clinical social worker and has a master’s degree in social work.