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The Health Benefits Of Giving

You don't need a doctor to tell you giving feels good. "Anyone who has given time, money or other resources probably already knows this from experience," says Mitchell Popovetsky, MD, a primary care physician at Rush University Medical Center.

But research can shed light, he says, on the science behind that helper's high — and long-term physical and psychological benefits that may follow it

Why giving feels good?

Popovetsky cites one study on charitable donation in which researchers performed functional MRI scans on donors' brains. After people donated, the part of their brains that "lit up," or became active, was the mesolimbic system.

"This is the part of the brain that controls feelings of reward and pleasure," Popovetsky says. "It's also activated by things like food, drugs and sex."

"But that's just the physiology of it," he adds. There's also a growing body of research that links different types of giving to greater quality of life, including the following potential health benefits:

1. Greater self-esteem and satisfaction with life.

Much of the research focuses on volunteering for organizations or informally helping loved ones. Researchers consistently find that these activities can lead to greater self-esteem, life satisfaction and sense of purpose.

Younger adults may not benefit as much as older adults because they are more likely to volunteer out of obligation. Older adults are more likely to seek out purposeful volunteer roles in their communities.

But volunteering can give a sense of purpose to people of all ages.

"When I was a stressed-out medical student, I helped start an organization that connected medical students with older adults who needed help navigating the health care system," Popovetsky recalls. "It was one of the most satisfying things that I did in medical school. It gave me a feeling of making a direct impact.

2. Lower risk of depression.