Christmas may be the season for giving, but research shows becoming more giving year round can significantly boost your health and wellbeing.
Amidst the sometimes stressful frenzy of Christmas shopping, the idea that giving to others can be good for your health and happiness can feel a bit of a stretch.
But a growing body of scientific research shows exactly that.
It's now clear that doing good for others without any expectation of reward – known as behaving altruistically – can give you better physical and mental health and even help you live longer.
As US-based altruism and health researcher Stephen G. Post puts it: "A remarkable fact is that giving, even in later years, can delay death. The impact of giving is just as significant as not smoking and avoiding obesity."
Indeed one study of 2025 older residents of California found those who volunteered for two or more organisations had a 44 per cent reduction in mortality over five years, even after accounting for factors like differences in prior health status.
And yes, even giving in a more material sense can boost your wellbeing – although not as much as "hands on", face-to-face helping.
Sydney positive psychology expert Dr Tony Grant says most of the studies have focused on behaviours like volunteering or practising acts of kindness, but some have looked at spending. These have shown those who spent money on others or on a charity are happier than those who spent on themselves. "Part of the problem is that [at Christmas], we get sucked into commercial rituals that have become completely divorced from any sort of intrinsic meaning," says Grant, director of coaching psychology at the University of Sydney.
"But if you focus on why you're giving – to make another person happy – it really can make you feel better and there are physical changes that underpin that."
Give and thou shalt receive
Exactly how giving boosts health is not fully understood, but reduced exposure to stress hormones such as cortisol may be one factor.
Knowing we've done something to improve the life of others not only boosts our self esteem and gives us a sense of purpose, it also shifts our attention away from our own stresses and worries, Grant says.
"Your attention is placed on making other people feel better, not on worrying about yourself."
Giving also "integrates you more solidly and cohesively into your supportive social networks", making it more likely you'll have helping behaviour returned to you when you need it – such as when you suffer illness or a loss in your own life.
"Twenty year follow-up studies at Harvard [University] have mapped thousands of people and shown those who pay attention to others tend to move towards the centre of their social network, whereas those who don't get pushed further and further to the edges as the network changes over time. This is very important. Shared social support is one of the things that would probably play quite a major role in longevity."
Some of the other changes that happen when we give have even been observed in brain scans. Studies involving functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans have shown donating money to charity triggers the same pleasure and reward systems in the brain as food and sex.
How much is enough?
Wonder how much you need to do for others before you get the rewards yourself? About two hours a week, it seems.
A 2002 study of 4860 elderly people found strong positive effects from a combination of volunteering and paid work up to about 100 hours a year, with no extra boost to wellbeing for those who did more than 100 hours.
While the study couldn't separate the effects of volunteer work alone, and there will always be variations from one person to the next, "it seems as if we don't have to put too much time in each week to receive benefits", Grant says.
"And even volunteering on a random one-off basis will have immediate effects on our wellbeing."
But overdoing altruistic acts can be harmful if you don't have enough support or respite.
Just be kind
If you don't have time to commit to regular volunteer works, you can experience the benefits of altruism simply by practising acts of kindness, Grant says.
In one of the most famous studies, students asked to practise five random acts of kindness a week for six weeks experienced a more than 40 per cent increase in self-reported happiness levels, measured on a type of standardised questionnaire widely used in psychological research.
Examples of acts of kindness you could try include:
- Helping out a soup kitchen or homeless shelter
- Phoning or visit a housebound person
- Collecting goods for a charity
- Letting someone in front of you in the traffic or in a queue
- Surprising a colleague at work with a snack, drink or coffee
- Donating blood
- Doing something for someone that requires time and effort
But there's a hitch. If you volunteer, or do kind things, specifically to make yourself feel better, you might end up feeling worse or at least not as good as you'd hoped.
You might for instance feel resentful that others don't appreciate what you've done, Grant says.
So it's important that your primary motive is to enhance someone else's wellbeing.
"It can be really small gestures, but the hallmark is that you do it genuinely as an act of giving. "When we feel good because we've made someone else feel good, that's the secondary glow we can savour."