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December 26, 2014 at 10:31 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

STUDY: Giving Generously Can Make A Difference... For Your Health

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

"Students from Public School 73 in the Bronx with bags of pennies they collected during the year for the Common Cents Penny Harvest program." Source: Group Turns Children's Pennies Into Millions for Charity, But Fights to Survive - New York Times

Relax. I'm not asking for anything. This is just a public service announcement from your friendly online doctor.

Christmas is over and you are probably reeling from its effects...good or bad.  Perhaps the festive deadlines to produce cookies, dishes to pass, and gifts has left you exhausted. Perhaps the retailers and advertisers had their way with your bank account and you are over-extended financially. Or, perhaps, you did it just right this year and had a wonderful holiday season. Christmas has become so adulterated over the years that one needs to work to distill the fundamental elements.

One of the most profound symbols of Christmas is that of a gift, given in humble circumstances, but received by all of mankind. While we usually acknowledge this notion, it seems so easily lost behind the flashing lights and high-pressure advertising.  

As a doctor, I tend to look at things through a health lens. I see the huge amount of calories and simple carbohydrates consumed around the holidays which usually culminate in around a five pound weight gain. I see the family and social stress that can sometimes bring people to their breaking point. But I also see that spirit of giving and appreciate the rewards it brings to personal health and well-being. So with this in mind, I chose to focus on the positive and give a nudge to practicing the spirit of giving all year round for the sake of humanity and also your own health.

Understanding Money and Happiness

The logical link for most is that money brings happiness. We dream about things we want in our life and that the gap is a matter of funding. Yet, at the same time, we hear the wisdom that money can't buy happiness.  

Which is it?  

I believe that money can bring happiness. However, it does so in a way that goes beyond simple and material reasoning.

Four years ago, CNN took a look at lottery winners and found that many were no happier than before they struck it rich. Some, in fact, were worse off emotionally. Material purchases lost their luster and trust issues developed within relationships strained over the money. (1) Sure though, money provides comfort which keeps us happy.  But it stops there.

A study conducted by Keirsey Research found that the happiness factor seems to increase up until the combined family income reached $75,000 - then it stops. Beyond that level of comfort, money does not buy happiness. (2

"Jack Whittaker Jr., right, is just one of many lottery winners whose lives took turns for the worse after acquiring their seemingly good fortunes." Source: Mega Millions Winners Might Not Be So Lucky: Jack Whittaker and More Unlucky Lotto Winners - The Daily Beast

So What Does Buy Happiness?

The answer to why were not happier lies not in how much money we have, but that we spend it on the wrong things.

Michael Norton from Harvard Business School presented his research in a TED talk where he gave random people an envelope with various amounts of money instructing them to spend it either on themselves or others. The results showed that when surveyed for happiness, those who spent the money on themselves had no change in happiness, while those who spent the money on others experienced an increase.  

The amount of money did not play a factor in happiness.  Nor did what was purchased. Interestingly, many people bought Starbucks coffee with their money on both sides of the study and those who bought the coffee for someone else were happier.  To factor whether this could be a culturally unique finding, his group took the same study to Uganda, finding the same results.

Norton and his group then went beyond happiness and looked at productivity, applying the experiment to sales teams and even recreational sports teams.  Reviewing high sales production rates and victorious games, those groups who were given money to do good for others vs. themselves fared remarkably better! (3)

"Maybe the reason that money doesn't make us happy is that we're always spending it on the wrong things." - Michael Norton

"Helper's High"

Science has weighed in on the direct and indirect health benefits of giving.  

Jorge Moll and colleagues at the National Institute of Health coined the term "helper's high," describing the endorphin effect on areas of the brain giving feelings of pleasure and social connection associated with donating to a charity. (4)

Numerous studies have further shown that giving in various forms helps people with chronic disease. One in particular showed that elderly persons who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44% less likely to die over a five year period. (5) This social connectedness, gratitude and emotional reward seem to have a rejuvenating effect on the mind and body.

Recurrent giving, such as volunteering, allows us to cultivate these feelings and apply them in an ongoing fashion (contrary to the social isolation created by winning the lottery). While giving as a recurrent behavior is best, even a single episode of giving can give us a boost.  Beyond endorphins, the hormone oxytocin (associated at high levels with nursing and orgasm) has been shown to increase with acts of giving and generosity.

Graphic Credit: The Free Press

"The Scrooge Effect"

On the other side of things, opposing behaviors can have negative health consequences.  Call it "the Scrooge effect."

Stingy behavior can lead to recurrent shame and cynicism can lead to production of the stress hormone cortisol which has been linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and premature death.  While granted not having enough money can cause such stress,  too much money in the bank can yield similar effects.

Photo Credit: The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, Chapter Four: "Raider of the Copper Hill" - Duck Comics Review

Coming out of this season of giving, it is my holiday wish that you see the benefits of giving year round, not only for those who benefit from your generosity but for your emotional and physical well-being.

Not sure where to give?

These charities are America's top 50 best in terms of spending on public support and the percentage of donations that go to actual programs (and not to salaries or marketing).

Live, and live well.







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