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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.

More ways to give back:

Millennials are leading the way in charity and volunteering — and they’re changing the giving game.

Involved millennials and charity pros offer advice for how to get involved and make a difference.

Use our volunteer matcher to find the opportunities to give back that are right for you.

Looking to volunteer? These local organizations can use a hand.

How you can do some good for others without added COVID risk.

These Connecticut charities will help your donated money or goods go further.

Still not sure which charity to give your hard-earned money? Ask givewell.org for suggestions.

Local organizations that need your donations.

Great ideas for helping older adults during the pandemic.

Some simple things you can do that spread joy and won’t cost you a thing.

This article appears in the December 2020 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.