Talk of philanthropy usually centers on donations of money or time to help individuals, institutions and socially useful purposes and how a giver can help others and change the world.
Acts of philanthropy, however, are rarely totally selfless. They can greatly benefit the giver as well as the recipient. Researchers have documented this phenomenon, which they call the "helper's high" or "giver's glow."
"Every great moral and spiritual tradition points to the truth that in the giving of self lies the discovery of a deeper self," said Dr. Stephen Post, a professor of preventive medicine and bioethics at Stony Brook University School of Medicine and the author of "The Hidden Gifts of Helping and Why Good Things Happen to Good People."
"When the happiness, security and well-being of others become real to us, we come into our own," Post said. "Creativity, meaning, resilience, health and even longevity can be enhanced as a byproduct of contributing to the lives of others. This has been traditional wisdom, and now science says it is so."
Brain scans show that people are made happier by simply thinking about making a donation to help others. This happens because thoughts of helping activate the area in the brain that is associated with happiness — the mesolimbic pathway. This in turn releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates the brain's centers for reward and pleasure.
In one study, 96 percent of participants who volunteered reported increased happiness, 73 percent lower stress levels and 68 percent better physical health.
Workplace volunteer efforts have led to improved recruitment and retention, benefiting employers as well as employees, according to another study.
A British study concluded the act of giving helps people fight depression. "Giving to neighbors and communities" was cited as one of the top five factors associated with lower rates of depression in the studied population.
And Harvard University researchers found that thoughts of philanthropy also help people fight off disease.
A Stanford University study found that frequent volunteering is associated with delayed mortality in older adults.
A different study measured the mental health of older individuals in assisted living facilities who were engaged in helping activities. These individuals enjoyed better mental health, including positive attitudes toward aging, improvements in feelings of control and life satisfaction, decreased depression and a sense of connectedness. They also enjoyed a lower rate of mortality.
Good mental and physical health in late adulthood can be predicted as early as high school. One-third of San Francisco Bay Area teens who placed value on their "giving" and "helping" contributions to society were much happier and healthier 50 years later, according to an often-cited longitudinal study.
"It is one of the beautiful compensations of life," said essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, "that no man can sincerely help another without helping himself." Although philanthropy usually goes hand-in-hand with altruism, a growing body of scientific evidence indicates that the giving of one's time or treasure makes the world a better place for both giver and recipient.
Bruce DeBoskey is a Tribune News Service columnist.