If you want to be happy and healthy: volunteer. Give to charity. Do something nice for someone else.
That’s what Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos, a leading expert in positive psychology, says. The evidence is clear that when we give, we get back so much in return in terms of mental health.
“We often get the idea of self-care wrong,” says Santos, host of The Happiness Lab podcast and the originator and teacher of Yale’s most popular class ever, “The Science of Well-Being.” “We think self-care is about buying things for ourselves or treating ourselves. But the evidence suggests that we get a bigger boost in happiness from doing nice things for others. There’s evidence, for example, that money spent on another person makes us happier than money spent on ourselves.”
In a review of scientific literature in 2014, researchers from Harvard and other institutions found that “both correlational and experimental studies have shown that people who spend money on others report more happiness. The benefits of such prosocial spending emerge among adults around the world, and the warm glow of giving can be detected even in toddlers.”
The benefits likely apply to physical as well as mental health. “There’s less direct evidence looking at the effect of charity on physical health, but there is evidence that being happier can make us physically healthy, and can even protect us from getting sick after being exposed to certain viruses,” Santos says.
She points to a 2006 study in which 193 healthy volunteers were exposed to either a rhinovirus (common cold) or flu virus via nasal drops. Those with a positive emotional state had a “lower risk of developing an upper respiratory illness.” This is one of many studies suggesting a link between health and happiness. “So, indirectly there really should be a connection between doing nice things for others which will improve our mood and happiness which can then have an indirect effect on our physical health.”
So, in this strange 2020 holiday season, if you have the means, donate, and if you have the time, volunteer. After all, you owe it to yourself.