The Best Present: The Neurobiology of Giving
As it turns out, what every six-year-old knows about the holidays turns out to be true: when it comes to the meaning of Christmas, it IS all about the presents. Or, at least about the giving. Numerous longitudinal studies provide compelling evidence that acts of giving, kindness and generosity improve physical and emotional health across the lifespan. Volunteering stimulates a release of oxytocin, producing feelings of well-being, warmth, and even euphoria. The effect of volunteering on cortisol levels decreases stress, with its well-documented relationship to health.
Steven Root, in his book "Why Good things Happen to Good People," reports that — controlling for other lifestyle factors — older individuals who volunteer an average of four hours a week experience a 44% reduction in mortality. Similar results have been reported for individuals with chronic pain and chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and multiple sclerosis.
Giving is also a gift that keeps on giving. Watching a video of Mother Theresa and orphans in Calcutta stimulates similar impulses to give and to be kind. The act of observing others volunteering appears to have a contagious effect, perhaps inspiring others to act through the agency of mirror neurons.
Interestingly, this effect does not follow a straight line. It is not true that the more giving, the greater the effect. Too much giving, like too much of most things, has a negative effect, throwing the individual's system out of balance.
For this holiday season, give yourself the gift of giving. Focus on others — family, friends, coworkers, strangers. Giving to a cause that moves you is an invitation to expand your joy and increase your feeling of belonging to those around you. For those in recovery, the mindfulness and connection these opportunities provide are precious gifts, not just for the holidays but for a lifetime.