Ward off death (sort off): why giving is healthy for you


It’s your birthday. A beaming friend hands you a present and eagerly you tear off the wrapping paper.. “It’s…. a piece of tree bark….Just what my carefully composed interior design lacks. And you’ve drawn a little smiley face on it. How thoughtful”.

OK, this might not be a common gift in the 21st century, but amongst Native Americans this probably was the equivalent of an IKEA gift voucher (though probably not with a smiley face on it).

Beheaded chickens

Gifts have always been given and received, though tastes & traditions varied throughout cultures and time. If you happened to be a Hindu deity, some beheaded chickens would have been appreciated or a lovely fresh virgin (alive or dead, you’re not picky). A caveman would have been chuffed getting a piece of rock for his birthday. Makes you appreciate that pair of socks you got, doesn’t it?

That caveman might have given his mate a dried fish head on his birthday. Because receiving a gift subtly implies that you ought to give something back at some stage. But why do we keep giving and receiving stuff? It’d be easier to just stop. And it would definitely save a lot of hassle in December. So why do we keep at it? According to history professor and gift expert Harry Liebersohn, giving gifts is a way of communication. It’s basically a language.

Nice and glowy inside

I like that: a gift, in whatever form, says so much without uttering a word: love, gratitude, ‘Sorry I broke your vase’. You can even get a present from someone who doesn’t like you: if you discover a very large wooden horse (or rabbit) outside your gates I’d leave it there if I were you.

But if gift-giving is a language, then it’s not an altruistic gesture. But what if you leave out the expecting something back-part? If you truly give someone a present or help them, not out of duty, but just because you want to. Or because it makes you feel all nice and glowy inside.

Research shows that giving is healthy for you:

  • It makes you happy
    Study shows that generosity releases that happy-hormone oxytocin which makes you feel all chummy towards others. They also believe that altruistic behaviour releases endorphins, giving you a ‘Helper’s high’.
  • it boosts your self-esteem
    “I’m awesome because I just grabbed a blind man by his coat and prevented him from being hit by a bus.” Even if the helpee can’t see you or might be totally unaware that he’s a helpee, it makes you feel better about yourself.
  • And apparently it wards off death
    A study at Berkeley showed that old folks who did voluntary work were 44% less likely to kick the bucket over a 5 year period than sitters-on-their-arses. Though I’m a bit sceptical about this: maybe people who don’t volunteer are just sour-pusses and we all know that sour-pussing is bad for you. And things that are bad for you make you die early.

And I have more good news! No need to run to the nearest old folks home and start cleaning dentures in your spare time. There are other, less ghastly things you can do to get some of the benefits mentioned above.**

Zoë’s Easy Giving Tips:

  • The two for one deal
    When there’s a 2 for 1 deal at your supermarket, think about donating the extra item. At my local shop, there’s a bloke (tracksuit, missing tooth) selling street news. I usually give him my free item. Unless it’s chocolate of course. A warning though: I once tried to give a bag lady some bread rolls, but she almost spat in my face. She turned out to be an eccentric dresser having a very, very bad hair day.
  • Turn off bicycle lights (only applicable in cycling countries)
    The decline of the bicycle dynamo has many advantages. The biggest is not having a rotating ridged rubber knob (that sounds both nicely alliterative and a tad dirty) pressing against your tire, slowing you down like a fat kid on rusty roller skates. So hurrah for the electrical light. But you have to turn the darn thing off. More often than not people forget (especially back lights) and streets are adorned with little red lights. Do us a favour and turn them off if you notice this. No, nobody will see and applaud you, but you can applaud yourself.
  • Don’t seat-hog in public transport
    Bags, jackets & small hairy dogs are often treated like passengers and given their own seat. When you ask their guardian if you could please have that seat they act like they’re doing you a huge favour: reluctantly putting bag or hairy dog onto their lap, all sighing and glowering. Wouldn’t it be nice if you were looking for a seat and someone would spontaneously make room and smile at you? It would instantly restore your faith in humanity!

There are tons of small gestures. You don’t have to start giving people foot massages. Offer someone a lift, make dinner, or just send someone a text to ask how they’re doing. And if you really want to make an impression, send a card. A real, paper one, with a message that you have written with a pen.

I have an idea: if you do an act of kindness this week then I’ll make my next chronicle extra funny. Do something you wouldn’t normally do. For some people that means driving a friend to the airport to others not hanging up on a telemarketer.


** Prolonging of life not guaranteed, but I bet you it will make you feel better about yourself ;-)


What are your thoughts?

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