You don't need a doctor to tell you giving feels good.
"Anyone who has given time, money or other resources probably already knows this from experience," says Mitchell Popovetsky, MD, a primary care physician at Rush University Medical Center.
But research can shed light, he says, on the science behind that helper's high — and long-term physical and psychological benefits that may follow it.
Why giving feels good
Popovetsky cites one study on charitable donation in which researchers performed functional MRI scans on donors' brains. (These scans are used to detect neurological activity.) After people donated, the part of their brains that "lit up," or became active, was the mesolimbic system.
"This is the part of the brain that controls feelings of reward and pleasure," Popovetsky says. "It's also activated by things like food, drugs and sex."
"But that's just the physiology of it," he adds. There's also a growing body of research that links different types of giving to greater quality of life, including the following potential health benefits:
1. Greater self-esteem and satisfaction with life.
Much of the research focuses on volunteering for organizations or informally helping loved ones. Researchers consistently find that these activities can lead to greater self-esteem, life satisfaction and sense of purpose.
Younger adults may not benefit as much as older adults because they are more likely to volunteer out of obligation. (For example, they may feel they have to help out at their children's school.) Older adults are more likely to seek out purposeful volunteer roles in their communities.
But volunteering can give a sense of purpose to people of all ages. "When I was a stressed-out medical student, I helped start an organization that connected medical students with older adults who needed help navigating the health care system," Popovetsky recalls. "It was one of the most satisfying things that I did in medical school. It gave me a feeling of making a direct impact."
2. Lower risk of depression.
Perhaps because of such positive feelings, giving may decrease your risk of depression and depressive symptoms such as sadness or lack of energy.
One study of older adults found that those who helped their loved ones experienced greater feelings of personal control over their lives. This feeling, in turn, decreased the likelihood that they would experience depressive symptoms.
Another study, on people coping with grief after the loss of a spouse, found that those who provided practical assistance to others (such as money, transportation or help with chores) recovered more quickly from depressive symptoms caused by their grief.
3. Better physical health.
Depression and lack of self-esteem have both been linked with heart disease and other health conditions. This link may partially explain why volunteering can lead to both better mental health and better physical health.
One 2013 study, for example, randomly divided 100 high school students into a group of volunteers and a group of nonvolunteers. At the beginning of the study, the volunteers and nonvolunteers had equal body mass index (BMI) and cholesterol levels. Afterward, those who had been assigned to volunteer once a week for two months (helping out with after-school programs for younger children) ended up with lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol and a lower average BMI.
The researchers suggested that the volunteers' improvements in mood and self-esteem after might help explain their improved physical health, since these psychological and physical factors have been linked in other studies.
Research on middle-aged and older adults, for example, has had similar findings. Middle-aged volunteers appear to have less belly fat, better cholesterol levels and lower blood sugar, compared with nonvolunteers. And older adults who volunteer are less likely to have high blood pressure. This means, in turn, that they have lower risk for heart disease and stroke.
Working toward a goal and feeling like you are making a contribution to society likely increases your sense of purpose in life, which ... contributes to both psychological and physical health.
4. A longer life.
Even if you already have heart disease, giving your time may have protective benefits.
That was the finding of a recent study in which adults with heart disease who had spent up to 200 hours helping others in the previous year were less likely to have a heart attack or die in the following two years. (However, those who spent more than 200 hours didn't get the same benefit, which might be because giving more time made people more stressed or tired. Other researchers have found that volunteering one to two hours a week offers maximum benefits.)
The above study was one of many in which researchers have linked giving to decreased mortality, or risk of death. The link might have something to do with the sense of purpose it can bring. Researchers at Rush have also linked having a sense of purpose to lower mortality among older adults.
"Volunteering provides many older people with a deep sense of meaning," says Patricia Boyle, PhD, a Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center neuropsychologist who led that research. "Working toward a goal and feeling like you are making a contribution to society likely increases your sense of purpose in life, which we have found contributes to both psychological and physical health."
When giving becomes too much
That said, it might not to be a good idea to volunteer just to improve your own life. Some studies have found that the reason you decide to volunteer makes a difference. Volunteering to help others might be more beneficial to the volunteer than doing it to benefit yourself.
Of course, sometimes you don't have a choice. "A lot of people end up needing to become full-time caregivers for loved ones," Popovetsky points out. "And that can be very difficult."
If you give to the point where you are no longer getting enough rest or exercising, or are overly stressed, that may have negative consequences for your health and well-being. "It's easier said than done," Popovetsky says. "But whether you're volunteering or taking time for self-care, try every day to do something that you enjoy."