The power of giving: Finding a longer, happier and healthier life

As kids, we're taught that “It's better to give than to receive,” a lifelong lesson meant to convey good morals and generosity.

But how much truth is really behind the old saying? Is giving really better for the giver?

Dr. Manny Alvarez, senior managing health editor of, sat down with Jenny Santi, a philanthropy advisor and author of the new book, "The Giving Way to Happiness," to discuss the ups and downs of giving and the health benefits that come with it.

“We should give in such a way that not only changes the world and improves the lives of people that we’re trying to help--- but also in such a way that makes us feel happier, more fulfilled and gives us a sense of fun,” Santi told

“There’s definitely science to what we keep hearing, that it’s in giving that we receive,” Santi said. In her book, she references work by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman, who led a study in the mid-2000s that showed how the brain produces a pleasurable response when an individual gives.

“For example, [it’s] through fMRI technology that we now know that there are two brain reward systems that are activated when we are giving or when we are volunteering-- these are exactly the same parts of the brain that light up when we think of food and sex,” Santi said.

fMRI scanning works by highlighting blood flow in different parts of the brain, making it easier to see which areas of the brain are engaged during various tasks.

In a study from Carnegie Mellon University, researchers found that adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers.

Over the years, science has discovered the following health benefits associated with giving and/or volunteering:

- Greater long-term happiness

- Lower blood pressure

- Increased self-esteem

- Less anxiety and depression

- Increased longevity

For eight years, Santi worked as a philanthropy adviser to some of the world’s wealthiest companies and individuals, helping some clients channel investments of up to $15 million. Throughout her book, she shares some of her personal experiences with clients like Goldie Hawn and Christy Turlington.

Santi also worked with supermodel Petra Nemcova, who survived the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed her fiancé in 2004. Two years after the tsunami, Nemcova founded the Happy Heart Fund, a charity that helps rebuild schools that have been damaged or destroyed by natural disasters.

“She said she [could] heal faster— emotionally and physically— when she did volunteering after the tsunami,” Santi said.

“You can have an impact on many lives and you can bring joy to the lives of others,” Nemcova recalled in the book. “There’s a selfish element in it, really. When we make someone happy, we become even happier.”

When it comes to figuring out what kind of giving is right for you, Santi advised finding something about which you are passionate.

"It’s our passion that should be the foundation of our giving"

— Jenny Santi

“You should choose not just what is good for the world, but also what is good for you-- what resonates deeply with you, what is it that makes you tick, what is it that ticks you off? It’s our passion that should be the foundation of our giving,” she said.

Technology and social media has helped make giving easier for people. Today, donating to a wide range of charities is just a click away.

“Peer-to-peer requesting of donations via social media and email has created an ease and immediacy for giving that simply didn’t exist before,” Lisa Tomasi, Founder and CEO of YouGiveGoods told “From the simplicity of the “text to donate” to the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS, social media and technology have brought causes to light to a population of people who may have not considered donating before and has made it simple to donate online.”

But with all these new ways to give, donors may run into the phenomenon known as compassion fatigue, when givers feel stressed out or taken advantage of.

“I’ve heard so many non-profit workers who find themselves burnt out. When you’re constantly dealing with charities it can be very cheerless at some point, especially when you’re dealing with very difficult issues such as animal abuse or cancer--- constantly dealing with that can really drain you and you can get disenchanted as a donor,” Santi explained.

To avoid compassion fatigue, people should find more hands-on opportunities to experience the good outcomes of their work, Santi said.

“Get to know who you are helping. For example, I asked a woman who was running an orphanage, ‘How do you protect yourself, most people would get depressed?’ and she said, ‘I’m hands on, I spend time with these kids, I listen to their stories, but I see their smiles and see how they speak to me and how they love me-- and that keeps me going.’”

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