Why giving is good for you (and how to benefit most)

Giving your time and money to those in need isn't just good for the recipients, it's good for you too. Here's the science behind it, along with some ways to make sure everyone involved benefits as much as possible

If you’ve given to a good cause recently, you already know that it feels good. What you might not be aware of – yet – is that it’s probably doing you good, physically as well as mentally and could even have benefits to your health that far outweigh the cash value of whatever you’re giving away.

But how does it work? Does it matter how much you give, or who to? And if you’re aware of what you’re doing, does that somehow negate the effects? Here’s what you need to know. 

First up, yes, that warm, fuzzy glow you get when you drop a bag at Oxfam or chuck a fiver into someone’s GoFundMe has a genuine physiological basis. In a 2006 study, neuroscientist Jorge Moll and his colleagues at the National Institute of Health used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of volunteers as they donated – or thought about donating – to charity, and found that when they placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated the parts of the brain that usually light up in response to food or sex. 

A 2007 study replicated the effect, showing that when volunteers chose to anonymously donate to a food bank, most were rewarded with a jolt of pleasure chemical dopamine – when a control group was ‘required’ to give the money through taxes, they got a much less pronounced high. This effect alone might have beneficial effects on your psychological wellbeing, and it doesn’t seem to matter hugely how much you donate. But are there other ways to ensure that everyone benefits when you give?

Here’s what the science recommends.

Give your time 

According to a recent study that looked at the habits and longevity of more than 3,500 people in their 60s and 70s from the US, those who reported volunteering their time and energy to help others were less likely to have died during the 13 years of the study than those who didn’t, after adjusting for other health-related and social factors. 

The study authors concluded, ‘time-giving behaviors – caregiving, volunteering, giving support – and prosocial traits were associated with a lower mortality risk in older adults, but giving money was not.’ This might be because ‘pro-social’ acts, as they’re known, are associated with a lowering of stress hormones – something confirmed by later studies.  

Do it in chunks

Good news if you can’t handle being nice every day: piling up your good deeds might actually be better for you psychologically. In a 2005 study led by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, volunteers were split into two groups: both were asked to perform five random acts of kindness every week for six weeks, but one group performed all of their kind acts in a single day, while the other group sprinkled them across five days each week.

At the end of the six weeks, even though they’d tallied up the same number of good deeds, only one group felt significantly happier: the 'chunkers.' 

The moral? Aim for one ‘nice’ day a week, where you give to charity, help out a friend, let your partner put their feet up and call your nan. Please note: you do not have carte blanche to be awful the rest of the time. 

Go for maximum impact

If you’re giving money, making sure you know where it’s going helps. 'Giving to a cause that specifies what they’re going to do with your money leads to more happiness than giving to an umbrella cause,' says Harvard psychologist Michael Norton in his book, Happy Money, 'You really want to feel like you’re having a specific impact on somebody when you give.' 

This probably makes sense: you feel better if you know your donation isn’t going to fund an ad campaign. If you really want to make sure you’re helping as many people as you can with your cash, though, check out GiveWell, which uses studies, data, and interviews with charity recipients to recommend the charities that are doing the most good.

If you want to help children in poverty, for instance, GiveWell’s research suggests that malaria medicine and Vitamin A are cost-effective lifesavers – and they’ll recommend the charities that are most effective in getting them to people who need them. 

You don't need money or lots of free time to help others

If you can’t do any of this – because you’re going through a tough time yourself, for instance – then remember that there are ways to help people out aside from cold, hard cash or volunteer labour, but also that you’re a lot more able to help others if you take care of your own mental wellbeing. Call a friend, write out a list of things that you’re grateful for, or check in on an ageing relative – you’ll still feel better afterwards, and it’s easy to keep the momentum going.