April 13, 2021 3 min read

A lot has been said down the years about how it’s a good thing to be a giving and generous person. Of course, giving to and helping others is good for its own sake, but there has also been a debate – including an increasingly scientific one – about the knock-on benefits it could have for the giver.

Giving back to the world in some way has long been hailed as a moral good by various philosophies and religions – with benefits for the giver and recipient alike.

Many have cited principles like that expressed in the famous Mahatma Gandhi quote, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” And there’s also the widespread belief that doing good for others makes it likelier that this generosity will be repaid at some point down the line, when the giver may be the one in need of help.

Let’s take a closer look, though, at the scientific reasoning for the notion that giving to others is as good for the giver as it is for the recipient. What recent studies have been conducted to support this?

Having a strong life purpose could mean big things for happiness

It has often been argued that having a strong purpose in life – centred in a belief in a cause bigger than ourselves – can have physical and mental benefits, simply because it takes the focus away from our own concerns and problems.  

So much stress and anguish, after all, is linked to self-referential thoughts – whether those worries may centre on our personal lives, finances, careers, health, or something else altogether. The theory, then, is that transferring your focus to others could help quieten concerns about your own life situation.

While much still remains to be understood about exactly how life purpose is connected to all-round health, various research already carried out seems to support the above point.

One study in 2016, for example, found an association between life purpose and measurable cognitive benefits for adults aged from their thirties up to their eighties. Participants were asked to rate their level of agreement with such statements as “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them” and “I live one day at a time and don’t really think about the future.”

Then, there was the 2008 study – by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton and colleagues – which found that participants experienced a greater increase in happiness from giving money to someone else, than they did from spending it on themselves. This was despite the participants expecting the opposite effect to occur.

Eudemonic wellbeing vs. hedonic wellbeing

It is important to appreciate that the kind of wellbeing associated with giving to others and having a strong purpose in life – eudemonic wellbeing – is different to hedonic wellbeing, which is the kind that might arise from a fun experience, such as visiting a fancy restaurant or treating oneself to a luxury purchase.  

That makes it all the more interesting to look at the outcomes of studies such as this one in The Lancet, which accounted for both of the aforementioned wellbeing measures. The research asked participants questions related to their sense of autonomy, control, life purpose and self-realisation.

The researchers in the above study divided the participants into quartiles on the basis of their eudemonic wellbeing score, and considered how this was associated with mortality over the ensuing eight and a half years. They found that 29% of those in the lowest quartile died, compared to a mere 9.3% in the highest quartile.

In the final analysis, even when such things as wealth, physical activity and smoking were factored in, people with the greatest sense of purpose had a 30% lower risk of death than those with the least sense of purpose.

It’s just one more indication of how being generous and gearing your life towards helping people other than yourself, could be of considerable benefit to you, too. And just as importantly, the benefits of the happiness arising from giving can be somewhat different to hedonic wellbeing.

Sure enough, another study – in 2013 – found an association between eudemonic happiness and lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and increased levels of antibody and antiviral genes. This is opposite to the effect that hedonic happiness had.

Don’t, then, be afraid to give in life. You won’t necessarily just be benefitting someone else’s life – you might well also be saving your own!

Other sources:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2017/07/10/the-science-of-giving-back-how-having-a-purpose-is-good-for-body-and-brain/

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/5_ways_giving_is_good_for_you

https://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/the-science-behind-why-giving-makes-you-happier.html

https://time.com/4857777/generosity-happiness-brain/

https://www.usu.edu/science/discovery/fall-2017-stories/does-giving-make-you-happy