The Science of Giving

A few months ago, I received a phone call from George Rupp.

Rupp is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Founded by Albert Einstein, the IRC serves refugees and communities victimized by oppression or violent conflict. When thousands run from natural disasters, war, or repression, the IRC is there, providing food and water, shelter, healthcare, and education.

Every Thanksgiving for the past few years, I’ve been sending Oxford Club members a letter reminding them how incredibly rich our lives are and asking them to remember the IRC, the world’s recognized leader in humanitarian emergencies.

I had never heard of George Rupp, however, until I got that phone call. “I’m just calling to let you know how much you’ve inspired us – our whole organization – with your letter,” he said.

Embarrassed, I mumbled something in response.

“We’re planning to read it to Tom Brokaw and the other directors at the annual board meeting Wednesday. We’d also like to turn it into a national fundraising letter. Would that be all right with you?”

All right? I felt like I’d just been injected with 100 mL of pure dopamine. I love the IRC. I love sharing its mission.

By the time I got off the phone, my wife said I was acting so goofy I might as well take the rest of the day off. When I walked outside, the sky was bluer, the neighbor’s dog was friendlier, and the birds, I was sure, were singing in counterpoint. It was a weird feeling, really, and it left me scratching my head.

But now I’m beginning to understand it. New scientific studies show that we’re actually hardwired to feel good – and live longer – by helping others.

Dr. Stephen Post, a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine, says, “The remarkably good news is that, over the past ten years, we have about five hundred serious scientific studies that demonstrate the power of [generosity] to enhance health.”

You’ve always known that giving is its own reward. Now science has discovered a slew of side benefits as well.

Here are just a few key findings:

  • Those who start giving in high school usually experience better physical and mental health over the next 50 years.
  • Giving reduces mortality later in life too. People who volunteer for two or more organizations have a 44 percent lower likelihood of dying – and that’s after sifting out other significant factors like age, gender, marital status, frequency of exercise, smoking habits, etc.
  • Giving generates a sense of inner freedom, serenity, and peace that affects the quality of life.
  • Giving reduces adolescent depression and suicide risk.
  • Giving helps us forgive ourselves, promoting a sense of well-being and greater self-esteem.
  • Giving reduces negative emotions, like spite, rage, and envy, that contribute to stress-induced psychological and physical ailments.
  • And Columbia University psychologist Eva Midlarksy has found that through giving we gain a greater sense of meaning in our lives, cope better with our own stress by shifting our focus to others, feel more socially connected, enjoy a greater sense of competence and effectiveness, and are more likely to live an active lifestyle.

Not bad. And there are many ways to give. Money, of course, is how most organizations get things done. But there are effective ways to donate your time, as well:

Volunteer. According to Doug Oman of the University of California at Berkeley, “Volunteering is associated with substantial reductions in mortality.”

Create a Network of Giving. Find others who are isolated or ignored and invite them to join you. Studies show that all of you are likely to benefit.

Become a Mentor. Nothing is more beneficial to the young than connecting with a caring adult who inspires them.

Pass the Torch. As an older adult, you have accumulated a lifetime of wisdom and experience. Recognize your own value – and share it with others.

Biologist David Sloan Wilson says, “We have said since millennia – in fact, this has been a fundamental tenet of religion – that if you do good things, it will reflect back to you, not immediately, not every time, but in general. This is a deeply entrenched notion.”

And now science is confirming it.

Giving is a simple act. Yet studies show that generous behavior may do more to protect and extend your health than vitamin supplements, green tea, fish oil, or an aspirin a day.

Each of us is flawed in a hundred ways. But giving redeems us. It ennobles us. It helps us create a better version of ourselves.

In his book Why Good Things Happen to Good People Dr. Post writes, “You wish to be happy? Loved? Safe? Secure? You want to turn to others in tough times and count on them? You want the warmth of true connection? You’d like to walk into the world each day knowing that this is a place of benevolence and hope? Then I have one answer: Give. Give daily, in small ways, and you will be happier. Give and you will be healthier. Give and you will even live longer.”

[Ed. Note: Happiness is well within your reach. Learn how you can make your life richer – in both senses of the word – right here.

And be sure to join Alexander Green, Chairman of Investment U and Investment Director of The Oxford Club, as he tackles some of life’s more difficult challenges in his free, twice-weekly e-letter Spiritual Wealth. Sign up here.

Alexander Green is the Investment Director of The Oxford Club. A Wall Street veteran, he has over 20 years experience as a research analyst, investment advisor, financial writer and portfolio manager. Under his direction, The Oxford Club’s portfolios have beaten the Wilshire 5000 Index by a margin of more than 3-to-1. The Oxford Club Communiqué, whose portfolio he directs, is ranked fifth in the nation for risk-adjusted returns over the past 10 years by the independent Hulbert Financial Digest. Mr. Green has written for Louis Rukeyser and several other leading financial publications. He has been featured on The O’Reilly Factor, and has been profiled by The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Forbes, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, C-SPAN and CNBC among others. He currently writes and directs the twice-weekly Oxford Insight e-letter and three short-term trading services: The Momentum Alert, The Insider Alert and The New Frontier Trader, as well as the editor of "Spiritual Wealth," a free e-letter about the pursuit of the good life. Mr. Green is also the author of two bestsellers “The Gone Fishin’ Portfolio” and “The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters.”