Generosity is good for you

Igor Stevanovic

Giving is an essential part of the holiday season. Whether it's shopping for gifts for loved ones or volunteering to help those less fortunate, generosity is a common theme this time of year.

While these actions often have happy outcomes for others -- a smile on your child's face or a grateful member of the community -- they can have numerous benefits for your own well-being, too.

"One of the things that we've all been raised on is the idea that giving back and giving to others is what is good. That's part of our commonly shared notion of the world," Dr. Joseph Baskin, a psychiatrist at the Center for Behavioral Health at Cleveland Clinic, told CBS News. "So by giving to other people, we're fulfilling that mandate we were given as kids. And that provides us with a sense of well-being and calm."

In addition to the mental health benefits of giving, it can also have positive physical effects on the body.

"On a physiological level, it leads to heart rate lowered, blood pressure lowered, lowered breathing rate, all the things that are good for your heart," Baskin said.

Some research suggests that being generous can lower stress levels. A 2014 study from the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, found that stingy behavior increases stress. The researchers asked over 150 volunteers to play a bargaining game, in which they had to decide how to divide a sum of money. Using heart rate monitors, they found that the participants who made low offers experienced increased heart rate and stress levels compared to those who made high offers.

Another study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that being generous was linked to a lower risk of death.

Being generous can also help maintain and strengthen your relationships. "Two people who give to each other, they just feel better about themselves and each other and they're going to feel more invested in the relationship," Baskin said. "It's good will. You strengthen relationships and friendships while you're in that giving, relaxed, and feeling good state."

While buying presents is the most commonly thought of way to give during the holidays, generosity comes in many different forms. Cooking a favorite meal for a loved one or helping an elderly neighbor with a chore are simple ways to make others -- and yourself -- feel good.

"One of the ideas I love for Christmas time is volunteering and doing something constructive with your time," Louisa Sylvia, Ph.D., director of psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital Bipolar Clinic and Research Program, told CBS News. "Embracing the holiday spirit in this way can really make you feel good while giving back to others."

Baskin also suggests even small gestures of kindness can go a long way. "Give your spare change or extra money to the Salvation Army if you're able to," he said. "On the road, let somebody in, let them merge. Take extra time to be considerate."

And while giving is characteristic of the holiday season, experts say it's best to practice generosity year round. "If people can remind themselves that it feels good to give, that it feels good when someone else is alleviated of a problem or feels less lonely and goes out of their way to make contact with others," Baskin said, "that can help inspire generosity all year long."

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    Ashley Welch covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com