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Science reveals that generosity benefits the giver, too

The old truism that “it’s better to give than to receive” isn’t just fodder for preschool and Sunday school lessons. A host of studies support the claim that generosity is not only good for the recipient, but the giver as well. 

However you practice generosity—tithing to a religious institution, volunteering at a food pantry, donating to nonprofits, or driving elderly relatives to the store—your quest to serve others is likely to result in personal rewards, too. Research shows that altruism between people reduces sadness and stress while increasing a sense of purpose and growth. It also improves physical health by lowering heart rate and blood pressure.

As sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson write in their book The Paradox of Generosity, “Rather than leaving generous people on the short end of an unequal bargain, practices of generosity are actually likely instead to provide generous givers with essential goods in life—happiness, health, and purpose—which money and time themselves simply cannot buy.”

So while generosity is by definition selfless, it is not a zero sum game—both the giver and recipient benefit.

Generosity: A death delayer

Perhaps the most compelling evidence that our preschool teachers were correct comes from a study conducted among renal disease patients. Patients who had the chance to support friends and family, whether financially, emotionally, or relationally, were significantly less likely to die over the course of a year. Among their counterparts who received social support but didn’t give back, death rates did not improve. In another study of Americans over 65, volunteering was shown to delay the inevitable. Giving time and energy to others, the researchers concluded, postponed death among participants—with the obvious caveat that volunteering for more than 40 hours a week and multiple organizations might counteract these benefits.

Science has yet to explain the exact physiological reasons why generosity functions like a superfood, but gene expression may have something to do with it. A study conducted among 159 adults looked at whether generous behavior counteracted something called the “conserved transcriptional response to adversity,” or CTRA. Prolonged stress can activate CTRA, increasing the risk of inflammatory diseases. But generosity seems to function as an antidote, warding off the onset of CTRA as leafy greens ward off inflammation.

Generosity: A happiness enhancer

Most of us have experienced the euphoric high of giving back. Being altruistic just feels good. That’s because generous actions stimulate the same neural pathways that light up in response to food, drugs, and sex. It doesn’t take much, either: spending a bit of money on others or giving back in small ways can improve our overall emotional tenor. In controlled studies, actions as minor as sharing treats or picking up dropped items led to increased happiness in people from toddlers to college students. 

These good feelings are also cyclical. Those who give money report increased levels of happiness, which prompts them to give more in the future. Generosity’s tendency to bring on good vibes is comparable to how exercise words. A confirmed couch potato might be surprised to find his energy and endorphins buzzing after an evening walk, leading to the desire for more walks, leading to more endorphins, and so on until suddenly the couch potato finds himself actively desiring a walk over a Netflix show.

Science also reveals that, contrary to popular wisdom, money really can buy happiness—provided that you spend it on others. In a survey of over 600 Americans, those who spent money on others reported notably higher levels of happiness compared to those who spent money on themselves. The same study also looked at the use of bonus money. Employees who spent more of their bonus on others felt happier than they did before receiving the additional income. Meanwhile, employees who spent money on themselves reported unchanged happiness.

Generosity: A love potion

Between spouses, generosity is proven to heighten marital satisfaction and protect against divorce. In a study of 1,365 couples, displays of tenderness and respect caused spouses to report higher satisfaction. Caring for their partner also made it less likely that spouses would see divorce in their future.

Need to convince your teenager to finish up their community service hours? Remind them that generosity could get them a date. Research shows that acting generously makes individuals appear more attractive as romantic partners. In one study of undergraduate students, altruistic men—those who acted in a way that benefited others—were rated as more attractive, both physically and sexually. Not only that, their potential paramours found them more socially desirable.

True generosity doesn’t subtract from one person and add to another. Rather, it enriches both giver and recipient. The more social scientists learn about generous behavior, the more convincing the argument becomes that it’s better—or at least as good—to give than receive.