The surprising habit that lowers blood pressure

Alistair Gardiner | May 12, 2021

Generosity is a virtue that most of us associate with morality rather than mortality. But research suggests that a proclivity for helping others can also help your health.

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Person working with elderly man down road

Research shows that being generous has health benefits for the giver as well as the receiver.

According to a white paper published by the University of California-Berkeley, making a habit of giving is associated with a range of positive psychological health outcomes, like happiness and self-esteem. Generosity is also linked to a host of physiological benefits, including lower blood pressure and even delayed mortality. Here are some reasons why you should consider making magnanimity part of your modus operandi, according to research findings and health experts.

The health impacts of generosity

Generosity can make a big difference to those around you, whether you’re volunteering for an organization or sharing food or resources with the less fortunate. But, according to an article published by the Cleveland Clinic, giving can induce various health benefits in the giver, too. 

These include lower stress levels, less depression, and lower blood pressure. In fact, research indicates that supportive interactions with others can even help people recover from coronary-related health events.

UC Berkeley’s white paper on the science behind generosity cites various studies that corroborate this. This includes a study that found those who volunteer tend to have increased levels of physical activity—particularly older adults who were previously inactive. And of course, physical activity is associated with overall better health. Another study mentioned by the authors, which looked at a cohort of 1,118 ethnically diverse older adults, found that giving any kind of social support was associated with lower blood pressure, better sleep quality, and other markers of better overall health.

Generosity and longevity 

Giving to others may also add years to your life, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Researchers used data from the National Transfer Accounts project, which documented intergenerational transfers in various countries across the globe, and examined how measurements of support and care correlated with rates of survival between individuals from 34 countries across six continents.

They found that differences in generosity and sharing are linked to disparities in mortality. The authors wrote that “mortality rates decline quite linearly with increasing proportions of lifetime income shared.” This was true for lower economically developed countries, like those in Sub-Saharan Africa, and for economically developed countries, like Japan and many in Western Europe. In one of their models, researchers found that a 10% increase in sharing was associated with a 15% reduction in mortality.

Study authors hypothesized that generosity improves health and survival by helping individuals meet their material needs, in addition to strengthening social networks and social capital, both of which have been linked to improved health in previous research.

In the aforementioned white paper, several studies corroborate this finding. One of the studies cited, which included 1,211 Americans over the age of 65, found that regular volunteering was linked with delayed death. Another examined the impacts of providing emotional support and instrumental support to a spouse, among older married couples in the Detroit area. After controlling for health variables, those who provided more support to loved ones had a “significantly reduced death rate” over a 5-year period, compared with those who reported offering less support. 

However, the white paper states that “a limited amount of research” has explored how biological mechanisms underpin these changes. Among this limited research is a 2017 study, which followed a cohort of 157 adults who were either assigned to complete activities that benefited specific other individuals, activities that benefited the world in general, or activities that benefited themselves, over 4 weeks.

Researchers examined changes in the expression of genes involved in the “conserved transcriptional response to adversity” (CTRA) in white blood cells. CTRA is a biological response typically activated in times of acute stress, and is characterized by an increased expression of genes involved in wound-healing and decreased expression of genes involved in fighting off viral infections. Exposure to prolonged stress may lead to an overactivation of this response, which could lead to increased risks of inflammatory diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis or cardiovascular disease. 

They found that there was a reduction in the expression of genes involved in CTRA, but only in the group engaged in activities that benefited specific others. Over time, a reduction in this activity could lead to a reduction in the risk of developing inflammatory diseases. While further research is required in this field, the finding points toward one possible explanation for how generosity leads to improved health and longevity.

Generosity’s impacts on well-being

According to the Cleveland Clinic, the act of giving prompts the release of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, all of which are known as “feel good” chemicals. Additionally, MRI scans of individuals who donated money to charities showed the activation of the mesolimbic pathway, commonly referred to as the “reward pathway.” All of this means that not only does giving provide a sense of well-being, but it can also be an addictive habit—albeit a healthy one.

Those who volunteer with community groups or charitable organizations tend to report having better self-esteem, and lower levels of depression and stress, compared with those who don’t. 

The findings of a study published in the Journal of Social Psychology point to the same conclusion. Researchers analyzed the effects of a week-long intervention of “kindness activities” on a group of 683 individuals. “The results indicate that performing kindness activities for seven days increases happiness. In addition, we report a positive correlation between the number of kind acts and increases in happiness,” the authors wrote. Interestingly, it didn’t seem to matter whether the acts of kindness were toward a stranger, someone the participants knew, or an act of self-kindness—all had “equally positive effects on happiness.”  

So, next time you’re considering taking the generous route, keep in mind that by giving, you may be getting more than you thought—including lower blood pressure, better moods, and longer years of life.

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