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Yes, this is the most wonderful time of the year, but it can be very stressful, too for a variety of reasons. I prefer not to get caught up in shopping and buying frenzy (sorry retailers), but giving more of myself.  For me that is the true meaning of the season. Since this is the season of giving—I’d like to share with you some remarkable health benefits of giving from the heart.

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While we can be overwhelmed by the requirements and additional stress the holiday season brings,   I think giving from the heart is a way to not only protect your mind and body, but to improve your health as well.  I encourage you to consider volunteering and being of service to others.

How Giving Improves Health

While you might wonder how volunteering might impact health, it does.  Health is all encompassing and involves every aspect of our lives, even how we give to others.  It’s not enough to exercise, eat right and get plenty of sleep.  Giving of ourselves in healthy ways, being of service, without being stressed by the service has great health benefits.

Over twenty years ago researchers found there were measurable health benefits to giving.  Known as the “helper’s high,” the afterglow of giving to strangers does have health benefits.  Volunteering is good for the soul, and the body when you do it for the right reasons.  Meaning, studies have found that  those who truly benefit from the healing power of doing good, give selflessly, without expecting anything in return, and not self-serving.

In one study, people who volunteered out of a desire to help others were found to live longer compared to those who volunteered for self-oriented and to non-volunteers.  Another study compared a group of senior citizen volunteers who gave massages to infants with a control group engaged in self-massage, and it found that the volunteers experienced lower levels of stress hormones and less anxiety than others.

Altruism and Selfless Giving

My parents were deeply spiritual and religious people. Growing up with parents whose lives were integrated with their spiritual beliefs, which included helping others, I didn’t analyze the health benefits of volunteerism. But I did watch them live it and was often moved by their integrity, kindness, and consideration of others. They were very family oriented, and “family” extended beyond the nuclear unit. They taught me to see our family as part of the larger family of humanity. They never met a stranger, as they welcomed and treated newcomers as friends.

My parents frequently performed quiet random acts of kindness: giving to children in our neighborhood and helping out neighbors and friends. My mother often cooked meals for homebound senior citizens, and my father gave his homegrown organic vegetables to many people. My parents were my great examples of how to be kind and live a good, loving life. They set the example for my own spiritual path and growth.

I still vividly remember an incident while I was grocery shopping with my father when I was seven years old. My father noticed a visibly distressed elderly woman who was crying and talking to the manager of the store. Though listening patiently, the manager did not appear to be moved by this woman’s tears. I watched as my father approached them, exchanged a few words, opened his wallet, and handed the woman several dollars. I saw relief wash over her face. She grasped Daddy’s hand and profusely thanked him. He smiled gently and said, “You’re welcome, Ma’am” as he walked away.

We went about our business. Daddy didn’t say a word, but I wanted to know what had happened. On the way home, I asked, “Daddy what was wrong with that lady?”

“She got off the bus and left her purse on it,” he explained. “She didn’t have a way to get home, so I gave her a few dollars to make sure that she did and to get something to eat.” Back then a bus ride cost fifteen or twenty cents.

As a young child, I was taken with not only his generosity but also his humility. It was no big deal to him, and he didn’t brag. He was very matter-of-fact about it. That was the first random act of kindness I clearly recall witnessing. I never forgot what Daddy did that day, or his humility. That one experience affected me deeply, and I’ve used it as a model and a guide for including altruism in my life.

Altruism is internally -motivated behavior that is born from a concern for the welfare of others rather than the anticipation of a benefit or reward. Our health and well-being benefit from helping others, if we can give without stressing and wearing ourselves out. There can be consequences to giving too much. Giving is beneficial only up to the point that it becomes physically and psychologically taxing. In other words, take care of yourself while you’re taking care of others.

Many volunteers report that they experience well-being, increased energy, warmth, and pain reduction as well as increased optimism and self-esteem. The afterglow that comes from performing altruistic acts, sometimes called “helper’s high,” can last from one hour to the rest of the entire day. There was a survey of 3,000 volunteers who regularly put in two hours per week, an average of eight hours a month, helping others. All of them had personal contact with the strangers they helped, and 71 percent of them reported feelings of well-being similar to the high described by long-distance runners.

Volunteering and support groups both appear to stimulate changes in our bodily functions similar to those researchers have observed occurring during meditation—that is, the relaxation response. Volunteering could well be considered a relaxation technique, since it disrupts self-focused thoughts and decreases the adrenal stress that occurs with the fight-or-flight response. Volunteering is beneficial in a variety of other ways, too: it improves our mood, distracts us from our problems and puts them into a broader perspective, creates enhanced meaning in life, increases our perception of our own effectiveness, and improves our social interactions. This all bears out the old adage that it’s better to give than to receive—especially when it’s done selflessly.

I wasn’t surprised to discover that volunteering has all these health benefits. But the key to achieving them is to not seek the benefits but to give from your heart. There’s a broad spectrum of reasons for volunteering, from those that are selfless to those that are self-serving. In one study, people who volunteered out of a desire to help others were found to live longer compared to those who volunteered for self-oriented reasons and to nonvolunteers. Another study compared a group of senior citizen volunteers who gave massages to infants with a control group engaged in self-massage, and it found that the volunteers experienced lower levels of stress hormones and less anxiety than the others.

Perhaps these findings are reflective of the spiritual belief that becoming lovingly other-focused is the highest state of being.

Source: SuperHealing:Engaging Your Mind, Body, and Spirit to Create Optimal Health and Well-Being

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