Is Generosity Good for Your Health?
Psychiatrist Kelli Harding, MD, MPH, explains the many benefits of generosity and how even a small gift or gesture can have an outsized impact
Generosity is normally seen as a selfless character trait. When we give and share, we normally think about how we can benefit others from our actions. But there are actually benefits to the giver as well.
To learn more about generosity and the benefits of giving, we spoke with Columbia’s Kelli Harding, MD, MPH, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Harding is an expert in the science of kindness and the social dimensions of health. Here’s what she had to say.
When I give someone a gift, it feels good. Why? What’s going on?
So often, we think about giving in terms of the recipient or who gets the gift as benefiting. What is so remarkable about giving is it benefits both the recipient and the giver. Just think of the last time you gave someone a gift, expecting nothing in return, and how good it made you feel to do so. Maybe it was giving a toy to a child during the holidays or an act of service like making dinner for a neighbor who lives alone. The joy is really in the giving.
We humans are innately social creatures, and our brains are constantly mirroring one another’s emotions. When it comes to giving, we’re hardwired for reciprocity. Even a small gift, like a cookie, activates our desire to respond in kind. What’s so lovely about giving is your kindness can inspire others to be kind, too. And generosity impacts our health and well-being in so many positive ways. It boosts mood, self-esteem, and our immune system. It also reduces stress, anxiety, and blood pressure. The associated feel-good chemicals can help reduce aches and pains and help us sleep better, too.
What does giving do for the relationship between the giver and the recipient?
Decades of kindness research tells us that giving is the social glue that connects us to each other and our communities. Just think about how you felt the last time someone gave you something meaningful or did an act of kindness on your behalf. Maybe you felt seen, valued, loved, or appreciated. I imagine you felt a sense of connection and belonging to that person or group.
We also know that positive social connection is critical for our health and well-being. Ample public health data shows our social world is a significant determinant of our physical and mental health. And thanks to the field of epigenetics, we understand how even our genes respond to the social environment. So, to boost our overall health and well-being, we can give and receive acts of kindness in all areas of our lives: in our homes; with friends; with neighbors; at school; in the workplace; and across the broader community.
What kinds of “giving” activate these connections? Is it just giving a physical gift, or does helping a neighbor, volunteering at a shelter, etc., have similar benefits?
Health benefits come from giving and expecting nothing in return--it is the kindness that counts. What you choose to give doesn’t matter. Gifts in no way need to be material or costly—some of the best ones are invisible or free. For example, think of how good it feels to receive a heartfelt letter of gratitude or a helping hand when you really need it.
Or how special you feel when a friend or family member gives you their full attention. In our distracted, 24-7 smartphone world, time for face-to-face eye contact is a precious gift. Studies show that our brainwaves actually sync up when we pay attention to the human in front of us. There are many ways to give, big and small, and it is best to do something comfortable and true for you.
Could you elaborate? Do even small acts of generosity have benefits?
Small acts of generosity are all around us and buffer stress for ourselves and others. Examples are infinite and include smiling and saying hello to a neighbor or someone you pass on the street, holding the door, or thanking someone who has helped you (such as a bus driver, a subway train conductor, or an Uber driver).
You might ask your cashier or barista how their day is going, bring a friend coffee or a flower, listen to a co-worker who is having a hard time, or teach something you know well to another person or group. Be an upstander (not a bystander) when you see something unfair and forgive someone who has upset you. Every one of these generous gestures benefits the giver as well as the recipient.
Are there additional effects of giving beyond the giver and the recipient?
The fun thing about giving is it is not just the giver and the recipient who benefit. It’s also anyone else who witnesses a generous act of kindness! Giving is a virtuous circle. Let me share with you a true story. I recently spoke with a woman (I’ll call her Sophia) who gave a hungry person on the train her sandwich. Sophia followed this gift with two apples. Then, to her surprise, Sophia was surrounded by the sound of clapping. Sophia’s kindness had moved her fellow train passengers. Maybe my telling Sophia’s story will inspire in you another kindness, so the circle of giving continues!
There is terrific research that shows how social actions impact not just the giver and the recipient but also their friends and even friends of friends. We are all immersed in vast social networks. And it’s impossible to predict how your small, kind action can create a ripple effect of good in the world. As a student of kindness, I’m constantly awed by the power of tiny acts of giving. A lot is going on in the world now, and each of us, in our unique way, can be a force for good with our kind choices. Imagine our world if we all practiced tiny acts of generosity daily.
Kelli Harding, MD, MPH, is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. She is also the author of The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness.