The Gift of Giving

Giving support is a potent health boost for women, while receiving is more beneficial for men.

By Lee Billings, published on December 6, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

We often think that the best relationships have to be perfectly equal and balanced. After all, it's only fair. I scratch your back, you scratch mine, and everyone's happy, right?

In fact, a group of Finnish psychologists has discovered that reciprocal relationships aren't necessarily the key to happiness and health. Their research proves an age-old adage: It is actually better to give than to receive—particularly if you are a woman.

"[Our] results were surprising for us," says researcher Ari Väänänen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. "We thought it would be good for the participants to receive as much as they gave, but that was not the case."

People with strong intimate relationships tend to be happier and healthier, and Väänänen and his team were interested in investigating the dynamics that provide the biggest lift in wellbeing. They quizzed almost 800 middle-aged Finnish men and women about how much support they gave and received in their intimate relationships, then tracked how many days they called in sick from work over the next nine years. The study's idea of "support" included both mundane and romantic tasks, from doing household chores to serving breakfast in bed.

The researchers found that women who felt they gave more support than they received took 50 percent fewer sick days than their co-workers. On the other hand, men who received more support than they gave also had fewer absences. In other words, women who gave more and men who received more support appeared to actually be healthier, or at least better prepared to deal with stress.

Of course, this doesn't mean women should start cleaning up after a messy spouse or begin cooking lavish family meals in hopes of adding years to their lives. It could be that women who take fewer days off just happen to be healthier people, and as a result are also more likely to spend their time caring for close friends and family.

But the results of this study could also be related to a well-known physical difference between men and women. Studies show when women provide care and support for their loved ones, they also produce the reproductive hormone oxytocin, which reduces feelings of stress and anxiety, lowers blood pressure and increases tolerance to pain. Since no equivalent response has yet been observed in men, this could explain the findings of the Finnish study.

Väänänen is quick to point out that the results should not be seen as a recommendation that all men should be cared for and all women should be nurturers. In the study, men and women on average gave and received support in equal amounts, he says. Gender just changed the effects of giving and receiving.

"In Western cultures, providing for others is expected and valued for close relationships," Väänänen says. "Among women it seems to enhance their health, but this doesn't say that men should not be the supporters in a relationship or that men aren't capable of functioning as caregivers."