5 Ways to Give—and Feel Happier—During This Pandemic

Research demonstrates that giving leads to greater happiness and better health.

Posted Apr 03, 2020

 Camila Castillo/Unsplash
Source: Camila Castillo/Unsplash

On the morning of December 26, 2004, Petra Němcová, a model from the Czech Republic, and her boyfriend, Simon Atlee, a British photographer, were vacationing at a resort on the coast of Thailand when an earthquake triggered a tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Petra and Simon were in their bungalow when the first wave hit, sweeping them both outside in seconds. Petra broke her pelvis and suffered severe internal injuries but was rescued after clinging to a palm tree for eight hours; Simon did not survive.

But out of this personal and global tragedy came considerable good. Petra returned to Thailand to help others whose lives had been shattered by this natural disaster. She started the Happy Hearts Fund, which focuses on rebuilding schools and helping young victims. Her motivation was in part, she reports, selfish: “When we make someone happy, we become even happier. If you decide yourself that you will help in some way, you will benefit the most because it will create amazing joy.”

I’ve thought about this story repeatedly over these last weeks, as we all try to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of us are powerless to fix this problem, beyond following instructions to stay at home and repeatedly wash our hands. But we all have the ability to give to others—and, as Petra herself noted, this is one of the best routes to happiness. It also improves our health and may even extend our lives. 

In fact, giving to others is linked to health benefits even among people with serious chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and AIDS. In one study, people with high blood pressure were given $120 and told to either spend that money on themselves or on other people over a six-week period. Those who were told to spend money on others had lower rates of blood pressure at follow-up, suggesting that giving to others may directly benefit one’s own health. A longer-term study over two years revealed similar findings; in fact, the more money people spent on others, the lower their blood pressure.

Why does giving to other people lead to such positive health outcomes? Giving to others seems to buffer us from the negative effects of stress. Giving also leads to higher levels of oxytocin, a hormone that increases feelings of closeness to others, leading to physiological benefits that directly link to health. Most important, giving to others may lengthen our lives. One study of older married couples found that those who provided help to friends, relatives, or neighbors had a lower risk of dying over the next five years than those who did not.

So, instead of ruminating about if and when things will get back to normal, here are five strategies you can use to give to others during this challenging time.

1. Support local businesses. It’s no surprise that many businesses are really struggling. Find ways to give to local independent businesses in your community—order books for pick up or delivery from a local bookstore, get takeout from a local restaurant, buy a gift certificate to use later on. This support will be crucial in helping these businesses survive over the next few weeks and months.

@coolmilo/Unsplash
Source: @coolmilo/Unsplash

2. Say thanks to health care workers. Health care workers across the country are working long hours under highly stressful, even life-threatening conditions. They need our support now more than ever. People in many communities are gathering outside to clap for hospital workers during shift changes; some businesses are sending free food to hospitals. My husband and I sent a gift basket of food items to a family friend who works as a nurse at our local hospital.  

3. Give to a local food bank. Growing unemployment rates mean more and more people are facing food shortages, including children who have relied on public schools to provide free breakfast and lunch. Donate food or money to your local food bank to help support the most vulnerable people in our communities.  

4. Write a gratitude letter. Take a few minutes during this stay-at-home time and write a letter to someone who has changed or shaped your life for the better—a teacher, first boss, or neighbor, or whoever. Tell that person specifically what he or she did for you, and how it shaped your life. Then, put a stamp on it and actually mail it. As you can probably imagine, the feeling of happiness—in both the person receiving the letter and the person hearing the letter—can be truly profound. 

5. Donate blood or plasma. Many hospitals may face shortages in the weeks and months ahead, as supplies run short and regular donors aren’t able to keep scheduled appointments. If you are healthy, reach out to your local Red Cross to book an appointment.  

We are all living through a time of great stress, and there’s so much we can’t know and certainly can’t control. But as the words of the following Chinese proverb tell us, giving is still one of the best ways to find happiness.

If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.
If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.
If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.
If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.