Violet Robbins became a famous face at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, Australia, after she took up volunteering in the mailroom at the age of 100. “Lil Nan”, as she was affectionately known, spent much of her life volunteering for various causes. Before her death in 2014 at 112 years old, Robbins set a Guinness World Record as the world’s oldest volunteer at 107 years old and was also the oldest person in Australia. Robbins spent six decades giving her time to others and still inspires others to do so through the annual Vi Robbins Volunteer Award, which was named in her honor.
Of course, not every individual who gives their time or money to good causes will live to 112. But science shows that altruistic behavior – from volunteering to monetary donations, right down to small acts of “everyday kindness” – can boost your mental wellbeing, improve physical health and even promote longevity.
For example, one study of American adults found that volunteers spent 38% fewer nights in hospital compared to people who do not give any time to charity. And seeing as the season of giving and goodwill is upon us, there’s no better time to give a little extra to others.
Here are six reasons that giving back truly is a gift that keeps giving:
- Instantly boosts your mood
Doing something altruistic or kind immediately lifts your spirits. A phenomenon first observed by scientists in the 1980s, the so-called “helper’s high” has been confirmed by many studies over the years. Described as a sensation of elation and exhilaration, followed by a period of serenity, this dopamine-fuelled experience is more than just a feeling.
Biochemical analysis shows that the helper’s high reduces stress hormones and boosts the body’s immune system. The benefits have staying power, too: Allan Luks, a leading researcher of volunteering and its benefits, found that the joyful feeling can last several weeks and can return later simply by remembering the action of giving.
- Promotes longevity
Briton Betty Lowe spent her entire life doing a good deed every day, inspired by the Girl Guide movement. Then Prime Minister David Cameron recognised her 95 years of good deeds with a Point of Light Award in 2014. At the time, she was still working at Salford Royal Hospital cafe once a week at the age of 106, despite her failing eyesight.
Lowe told reporters she believed volunteering kept her healthy – and research proves she’s right. People who volunteer or help others lead longer and healthier lives. One study published in 2013 concluded that volunteering reduces mortality risk by 24%. Another published in 2016 found that volunteers were more likely to take preventive measures such as flu shots, mammograms, cervical smears, cholesterol tests, and prostate exams.
Some public health experts have even called for doctors to prescribe volunteering to patients, alongside exercise and diet.
- Makes you a better partner
Unsurprisingly, generosity often ranks high among a list of desirable attributes for a potential partner, and research shows that women, in particular, place greater importance on altruism compared with men.
What’s more, a study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that altruistic couples were more likely to be happier in their marriages: 67% of the participants rated as most altruistic rated their marriage as “very happy.” Conversely, among those profiled as the least charitable, only 50% said their marriage was “very happy.”
- Reduces stress, increases sleep
Generosity comes in many forms, and its positive physiological benefits have been linked to greater wellbeing and physical health. For example, giving to charities has been linked to reductions in anxiety, PTSD, and phobias. The effect is even more substantial in “targeted” generosity (giving to a specific person) compared to “untargeted” generosity (generally contributing to a good cause).
Taking part in “prosocial” behaviors – small acts of kindness, such as holding a door open for a stranger or offering directions – can also reduce stress, which improves sleep, relationship and heart health. One report found that engaging in prosocial behaviors can improve your overall mental health.
- Advances your career
It might not be the most altruistic reason to help others, but spending time on good causes has another ancillary benefit: your job prospects. Volunteers pick up a range of skills that make them a tremendous asset to the workforce and become more desirable to potential employers.
Research by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a US federal agency that promotes volunteerism, shows that unemployed people who volunteered for a charitable cause had a 27% greater chance of landing a job than those who didn’t. This figure rockets to an incredible 51% for those without a high school diploma.
- Leads to greater happiness
Additional research shows that giving care or being kind to others can release oxytocin, the “love” hormone that drives social attachment, lowers blood pressure, and creates a calming effect on the body.
“We all seek a path to happiness,” says Dr. Waguih William IsHak, a professor of psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Practicing kindness toward others is one we know works.”
Whether it’s volunteering for six decades, gifting to a coworker, offering a donation to charity, or simply holding a door open for a stranger on the subway, there are plenty of reasons to try and become more altruistic in today’s fractious world.
“Biochemically, you can’t live on the 3- to 4-minute oxytocin boost that comes from a single act,” says Dr IsHak. “The trick you need to know: Acts of kindness have to be repeated.”
And there you have it: Giving is good for you – and the more you give, the better it gets.