The perks of giving: how spending money on others can lower blood pressure -

The perks of giving: how spending money on others can lower blood pressure

According to a new study, “prosocial spending” may be as good for blood pressure as a healthy diet and exercise

A lot of people believe that the way to become happier and healthier is by spending money on one’s self. Putting in extra hours at work and saving up money to be able to buy the things that are believed to bring happiness. However, some research has shown that in terms of health, this isn’t exactly the way to go.

Past research has shown that when money is spent on others, greater well-being is experienced than if that money was spent on one’s self. Could something as simple as buying a friend dinner or donating to charity improve our health, too—and if so, how?

According to a paper published this February in the journal Health Psychology, it can—and one way it works is by lowering blood pressure.

In an initial study, researchers looked at the relationship between giving money to others (or “prosocial spending”) and blood pressure, a simple measure of cardiovascular health. One hundred eighty-six adults who had been diagnosed with high blood pressure were asked to indicate how much money they spent on charities and other causes, and then followed up with two years later. By then, the participants who had initially spent the most on causes had lower blood pressure than participants who had spent less money. This association held even after accounting for the effects of income, education level, and age.

In a second study, the researchers looked at whether spending money on others could actually cause a reduction in blood pressure. On three days during a six-week study, 73 participants with high blood pressure were instructed to spend $40 given to them by the researchers. Half were told to spend the money on themselves, while the other half were told to spend the money on others. The researchers found that the participants who had spent money on others had lower blood pressure at the end of the study. Notably, this effect appeared to be as large as the benefits of healthy diet and exercise.

Why does prosocial spending have these benefits? One possibility is that it increases how socially connected people feel. Feeling closer to the ones who have received help can enhance relationships with others, which have a large impact on health.

Ashley Whillans, doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the paper, says that prosocial spending may also work to reduce the negative health effects of stress. According to Whillans, future research on prosocial spending and health could investigate whether “helping others protects us from the stresses and strains of our day-to-day lives.”

How to maximize the health benefits of giving

If you are looking to spend money on others, researchers have found several ways to make sure that you get the greatest benefit from your spending.

Whillans reports that participants appeared to benefit most when they chose to spend money on people they were close to. This accords with past research suggesting that spending money on others benefits well-being most when it makes givers feel more socially connected.

Additionally, giving seems to be best when the choice to help others comes intrinsically: When it’s pressured, the same psychological benefits are not likely to be experienced. Whillans and her co-authors point out that feeling burdened can undermine cardiovascular health, so helping others may not be as beneficial if we feel pressured to do so.

When giving money and time to others, research suggests, we end up gaining something as a result: We experience increases in health and well-being. In particular, giving to others may help strengthen our relationships and foster resilience in the face of stress. Even giving small amounts of money can be beneficial, Whillans reminds us: “It is possible to maximize the happiness and health benefits of every dollar.”


This article was originally written by Elizabeth Hopper and was published on Berkeley’s Greater Good