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Wellness

The New Political Movement that Also Benefits Your Health

Science is beginning to understand how generosity makes our lives better—and maybe even longer

You can’t buy happiness, but giving to a cause and helping others may be an effective alternative.

In the uncomfortable, surreal aftermath of the presidential election, a somber weight settled over much of the country like volcanic ash. For millions of Americans, the initial shock at having elected an unqualified buffoon known for his hate rhetoric and spoiled-child demeanor has given way to feelings of fear, apprehension, anger and embarrassment. As Inauguration Day ticks closer, the only seed of hope I have found (other than the hope that this is only a bad dream) is in the actions we can still take as citizens.

I’ve noticed, in the past two weeks, a strong embrace of nature (maybe because we know that it too is threatened), as people take to the forests for solace and reflection. And whether it’s done publicly in the streets or in their homes, people are coming together for support.

Meanwhile, local government and nonprofits stand as totems of people’s power, the last arenas where meaningful change can be fought for and won. As of last week, more than 125,000 people donated to Planned Parenthood—20,000 of whom donated in the name of anti-choice Mike Pence. (Visit mikepence.co for a breakdown of ways to give to Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky.) In the week following the election, the American Civil Liberties Union announced $7.2 million in donations over a five-day period, compared to $27,806 in the same five-day period in 2012.

Actually, the whole world appears to be jumping in: the Trevor Project, a nonprofit that offers suicide prevention services for the LGBTQ community and struggled before the election, reported more than $165,000 from donors in 20 countries after the election.
So it seems fitting, as websites like ragedonate.com continue to materialize, that GT is rolling out its Santa Cruz Gives project. Now in its second year, SC Gives offers a crowdfunding platform for making online donations to support your choice of 33 local nonprofit organizations, all of which are doing amazing work in our community.

While the holidays usually see an uptick in consumerism—and a 25-percent increase in household waste between November and January, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—this year’s spending may have a different flavor. After all, allocating funds to help others doesn’t just empower the organizations and movements that need it most, it helps the giver, too: In 2010, the social psychologist Liz Dunn found that cortisol levels (that notorious stress hormone linked to ill health) were lower in people who gave money away rather than hanging on to it.

But if you don’t have disposable income to donate to a cause, don’t worry—the benefits of altruism extend beyond the realm of dollars and cents. Not only do researchers call it part of a “healthy psychological reward system,” the spirit of generosity may also prolong the length of our lives. While science has long since established that social isolation and stress are significant predictors of mortality and morbidity, the link between giving and a lowered risk of early death was first revealed in 2010, in a five-year multi-institutional study led by Michael J. Poulin, Ph.D., at the University of Buffalo. The study, which followed 846 subjects, monitored both stressful life experiences as well as tangible assistance—errands, housework, childcare, transportation—given to friends and family members, and found helping behaviors to be a significant buffer in the association between stress and mortality.

“We don’t know what the active ingredient is. Nobody has captured that yet,” Poulin told NPR last December. Compassion and caregiving have been shown to release oxytocin, the “love hormone” believed to drive social attachment and maternal behavior, which may be helping to curb stress. “When you’re thinking about helping other people, you’re simply not thinking as much about yourself and your problems. In essence, it’s a kind of distraction, but a more satisfying distraction than surfing the Web or binge-watching House of Cards.” Or sitting on Twitter or Facebook, growing orange with rage. Here’s to smiling at strangers, going for more hikes, and, if your wallet is fat, visiting santacruzgives.org to give to a cause that will directly touch the lives around you.

Managing Editor at Good Times Newspaper |

The managing editor at Good Times, Maria Grusauskas writes the column Wellness, and also gravitates toward stories about earth science. She won a second-place award for environmental reporting in the 2015 CNPA contest. Her interests include humor, traveling without money, the human experience, swimiming slow, lazy laps at the gym pool and gardening for therapy. Her work has also appeared in Astronomy magazine, High Times magazine and on shareable.net.

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