The Joy and Health Benefits of Giving to Others

Updated: Nov 30, 2021


the joy and health benefits of giving to others

The holiday season is nearly upon us. My daughter and I drove to Virginia last weekend, where we saw holiday lights, garlands, and wreaths already going up (yes, even before Thanksgiving!).

Giving is synonymous with the winter holidays. Sure, it feels good in the moment to give to others, but did you know that giving can also benefit your health in physical ways?

How does giving to others help you?

Dr. Jonathan Fisher is a cardiologist who actually prescribes gratitude to all of his heart patients. Why? Among other research findings, Dr. Fisher says “gratitude practice has been shown to reduce markers of inflammation (and ongoing damage) and improve heart rate variability (HRV), which is a marker of heart health and resilience.”

See his recent interview segment on this topic on WCCB TV in Charlotte, North Carolina.

According to Christina Karns, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon, "It turns out that the neural connection between gratitude and giving is very deep, both literally and figuratively. A region deep in the frontal lobe of the brain... is key to supporting both. ...This region is wired up to be a hub for processing the value of risk and reward; it’s richly connected to even deeper brain regions that provide a kick of pleasurable neurochemicals in the right circumstances."

Karns' research shows that people who practice gratitude train their brains to appreciate giving more, and to derive more joy (and, by extension, quite likely health benefits) from it.

In addition to the health benefits generally associated with gratitude and giving, there are also many ways to integrate physical health directly into the process of fundraising and other giving activities. For example, most years my family and I run the Trot for Hunger, a race on Thanksgiving morning that raises money for So Others Might Eat (SOME), a nonprofit that supports people through food and other community services.

Lygeia Ricciardi and family running Trot For Hunger 5K on Thanksgiving for So Others May Eat nonprofit organization
Staying warm before the Trot for Hunger 5K!

We didn’t do it last year because of COVID, but here’s a picture from a turkey trot from a few years ago—I know, it’s a chicken hat, not exactly a turkey hat… close enough!

Creative and fun ways to find joy in giving to others

Some fundraisers take health benefits to an even higher level: they push you to exercise while benefiting an explicitly health-related cause—that’s contributing to your own and the community’s health in multiple ways at once!

Because of the pandemic, many “healthy” fundraisers now offer a virtual option, or are even entirely virtual. For example, the Sharp Index has organized a virtual race called Turnout4Burnout (with 5K, 10K, kids’, and walk/run options) now through December 31, 2021. This one benefits healthcare heroes, including the physicians and other clinicians who have borne the brunt of the pandemic in so many ways.

Between 35% and 54% of doctors and nurses in the US experience burnout at some point in their careers, and with the additional stress and strain of COVID, many of them are now leaving their professions. Last year I organized a team of kids to run the Turnout4Burnout, and we had a lot of fun. I’d encourage you to put together a group (social interactions are good for your health, too!) or run it on your own if you can.

Another great health-related fundraiser is Movember4PD organized by the incredible family of Jimmy and Cherryl Choi, who have shared their story with AdaRose (see our interview with Jimmy here). Jimmy is a Parkinson’s patient who is also an American Ninja Warrior contestant and World Record holder in pushups and burpees. As if that weren’t enough, he’s also helped to redesign pill bottles via his TikTok account (!).

Movember involves moving a mile each day in November and raising money for Parkinson’s research, specifically through the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Are you in?

Including family in giving

Moonjar from Amazon used to divide money into savings, spending, and giving with others
Moonjar - Image Credit: Amazon

A few years ago I did a search for volunteer opportunities in my region (Washington DC) that are open to kids. At the time, many of the opportunities I saw (such as volunteering in a soup kitchen) were restricted to adults, or at least older children.

Even if that is the case in your area, you may be able to create your own opportunities. For instance, because I was familiar with the Shirley’s Place drop-in day center for people experiencing homelessness through Girl Scouts, our family carried over to them a donation of coats and hats. If you happen to be in Washington DC, here’s a list of neighborhood places that are looking for donations—chances are your area has many, too.

Speaking of Girl Scouts, the organization promotes the idea of dividing income for kids (whether it’s allowance or something they earn) into three categories: spend, save, and give. Until very recently our daughters used a jar (the one pictured is from Amazon) that had three sections to divide their money, and we’d discuss where they wanted to donate their “give” money at the end of each year.

Unique ways to give back

Giving doesn’t always have to mean money, or even volunteering time. An organization we’re loving is RecycleHealth, which collects used fitness trackers, refurbishes them, and distributes them to members of underserved populations.

Donate your old clutter, support the environment, and improve other people’s health simultaneously! Check out my interview with Dr. Lisa Gualtieri about RecycleHealth and how it helps the community.

Whatever else you may give this season, please remember to give thanks, even in a difficult year, for all the good things in your life. Thank you for reading, and please share any ideas or suggestions you may have in the comments section!



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