The Healing Power of Generosity

Helping others can add years to your life—here are 7 kind acts to perform today.

Medically reviewed in February 2021

One small act of generosity has the power to create a ripple effect: it can spread kindness from person-to-person until your good deed touches the lives of complete strangers. In fact, generosity spreads by up to three degrees of separation, according to a study published in a journal from the National Academy of Sciences.

When you start a chain of generosity, you’re not only helping others, you’re also doing yourself a favor: being generous can improve both your emotional and physical health.

“A number of studies show that people who do volunteer work have less depression and even lower death rates,” says Michelle Carlino BA, CYT, ERYT500, instructor and member of Lourdes Wellness Services at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, New Jersey.

Generosity is a stress-buster
A growing number of studies suggest that selfless giving lowers stress and eases depression symptoms—regardless of a person’s culture or income. In fact, one study found positive emotional effects linked to generosity in 120 countries across the globe, including some of the world’s poorest places.

In another experiment, researchers found that individuals who bought a bag of food for a sick child, rather than a bag of food for themselves, reported feeling happier. This including people struggling to feed their own families.

“When you’re generous, the bonding hormone, oxytocin, increases and the stress hormone, cortisol, decreases,” explains Carlino. “The region of the brain that’s linked to empathy, caring and feeling pleasure lights up on MRI brain scans, as well.”

In addition to its effect on brain chemistry, generosity may tackle some of the underlying issues that trigger depression symptoms. Older adults who volunteer tend to have:

Volunteering also relieved feelings of depression and despair among heart attack survivors, according to a study from Duke University. Since moderate-to-severe depression increases risk of death by 70 percent for people with certain heart conditions, generosity may be one powerful form of medicine.

Generosity heals the heart (in more ways than one)
Generosity helps stave off chronic illnesses, like heart disease, by lowering disease risk factors. It reduces stress, often involves exercise, builds social connections and may even lower blood pressure.

Older adults who volunteered for 200 hours or more per year were actually 40 percent less likely to have high blood pressure than those who didn’t according to one four-year study.

“But generosity doesn’t only including volunteering,” says Carlino. “You can be generous with your thoughts for another person or perform small acts of kindness.”

Ways to practice generosity
Even the smallest acts of generosity can be meaningful. Here are seven you can complete today:

  1. If someone cuts you off on the road, don’t react with anger. Forgive them and say a prayer of protection and gratitude, Carlino recommends. Why? “If they’re driving crazy, you could have been in an accident,” she explains. “Plus, forgiveness is a form of generosity—it’s generous to the other person and to yourself. The other person was wrong, but you’re holding onto the stress and hurt.”
  2. In the winter, sneak a love note and a piece of chocolate into your spouse’s or child’s coat pocket.
  3. Write a positive online review for a local business.
  4. Pay for the person’s order behind you at the drive through window.
  5. “Carry an extra water bottle or granola bar and give it to a homeless person,” suggests Carlino. If you pass the same homeless person every day, bring them a warm pastry and coffee on cold mornings.
  6. Join the bone marrow registry, become an organ donor, donate blood.
  7. The next time you attend an event with flowers, bring the leftover bouquets to a nursing home. On holidays, bake cookies or cupcakes and hand deliver them to nursing home residents.

Choose from this list or come up with random acts of kindness on your own. Try to complete five acts on your next day off. Psychology research shows that planning and performing multiple, small acts of kindness back-to-back can improve your overall happiness. Plus, imagine all of the people who will have better days if you start many chains of generosity.

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