Benefits of Generosity
THE GIVING HEART
by M.J. Ryan
Giving Is Good for Our Health
I have a friend who has had a terrible case of lupus for nearly twenty years. She has been hospitalized many times and is constantly on medication that has horrible side effects, including cataracts. She had to quit her job as a graphic designer and now is completely supported by her husband. She can get really down about her life. Recently she decided to become a volunteer at a soup kitchen. She goes when she feels up to it, and she’s started to discover that the more she goes, the better she feels—emotionally and physically. Her arthritis (a consequence of lupus) isn’t as severe and she has more energy.
Helping others can not only make us feel good about ourselves; it can also increase our physical well-being. The mind and body aren’t separate. Anything we do to elevate our spirits will also have a beneficial effect on our health. A recent study by Cornell University found that volunteering increases a person’s energy, sense of mastery over life, and self-esteem. Other studies have demonstrated that such positive feelings can actually strengthen and enhance the immune system. Positive emotions increase the body’s number of T-cells, cells in the immune system that help the body resist disease and recover quickly from illness. Positive emotions also release endorphins into the bloodstream. Endorphins are the body’s natural tranquilizers and painkillers; they stimulate dilation of the blood vessels, which leads to a relaxed heart.
While we don’t quite understand all the reasons why giving creates good health, many studies have documented generosity’s positive effects. Michigan researchers who studied 2,700 people for almost ten years found that men who regularly did volunteer work had death rates two-and-one half times lower than men who didn’t. In a separate study, volunteers who worked directly with those who benefited from their services had a greater immune system boost than those whose volunteer work was restricted to pushing papers.
Harvard researchers also conducted a study that showed how giving is such a powerful immune booster that it can be experienced just by watching someone else in the act of giving! In this well-known experiment, students looking at a film of Mother Teresa as she tended the sick in Calcutta—even those who purported to dislike Mother Teresa—got an increase in immune function.
Psychologist Robert Ornstein and physician David Sobel are well known for their examinations of the health effects of altruism. In their book Healthy Pleasures, they describe what they call the “helper’s high,” a kind of euphoria volunteers get when helping others—a warm glow in the chest and a sense of vitality that comes from being simultaneously energized and calm. They compare it to a runner’s high and claim it is caused by the body’s release of endorphins. Because of all these health benefits, as Stella Reznick says in The Pleasure Zone, “the one who ends up getting the most from a good deed may, ultimately, be the good Samaritan.”
Generosity Alleviates Fear
I’ve never had the privilege of meeting writer Anne Lamott, but I have loved her books, particularly Operating Instructions. Her emotional honesty leaps off every page—here is a woman who is not afraid to show herself, warts and all. In admitting her vulnerabilities, she makes it okay for us to be just who we are too.
In an interview, she was asked about her relationship to money. As a single mother living off her writing, her financial security has been precarious at best. She spoke of having survived, at times, off the generosity of friends, and then said something that leaped out at me. “I know that if I feel any deprivation or fear [about money], the solution is to give. The solution is to go find some mothers on the streets of San Raphael and give them tens and twenties and mail off another $50 to Doctors Without Borders to use for the refugees in Kosovo. Because I know that giving is the way we can feel abundant. Giving is the way that we fill ourselves up.... For me the way to fill up is through service and sharing and getting myself to give more than I feel comfortable giving.”
To me, a person who has a great deal of fear when it comes to money, the thought of giving money away precisely when I felt like clinging to it seemed terrifying. Sick of constantly being fearful about money, I decided to give it a try. Amazingly, it really works. I feel less afraid the more I give.
It’s a paradox. If we are afraid of not having enough, we think we need to hold on tightly to what we have and work hard to get more. As Anne Lamott and I found out, that perspective only makes us more afraid, because we get caught in a cycle of clinging and hoarding. When is enough enough? Is $5,000 enough? $50,000? $100,000? $1 million? A recent study found that no matter how much money people made, they thought they would be happier if only they had more. Whether they made $20,000 a year or $200,000, everyone thought they needed a bit more.
If we turn around and give instead
of hoarding everything, we suddenly experience the abundance we do have.
Most of us, particularly those of us living in Western societies, have a
great deal, and when we share what we have, we feel our abundance. It
becomes real to us, and that diminishes our fears. I read about a woman
who was suffering from depression and contemplating suicide because of
back pain and poverty. She found a kid foraging in the Dumpster and
thought to herself, “I don’t have a lot, but at least I can fix this
kid a peanut butter sandwich.” Giving away that peanut butter sandwich
reminded her of the abundance she still had, even in the projects. If she
could still give, her life wasn’t so bleak after all. She now runs a
volunteer program in Dallas that feeds hundreds of kids a day. It started
from that one day when she gave away the sandwich.
Heart, by M.J. Ryan. Copyright
© 2000 by Conari Press. Excerpted by arrangement with Conari Press.
$11.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-685-7190 or click