Now that we're officially in the holiday season, generosity and gratitude reign supreme. We're altruistic because we're motivated at this time of year to support others who are less fortunate, and we express thanks for those who have extended similar kindness to us.
And honestly, why wouldn't we want to tap into this sort of holiday spirit? Both generosity and gratitude have an incredible influence on our emotional health. When we practice them, we're happier, more optimistic and have a lower risk for depression and anxiety. New research also shows that gift giving reflects how we feel about others and could give more insight into how we maintain relationships.
Yet, somehow, we really only concentrate on the benefits when the year winds down. Bah-humbug.
If you need more reason that these two superpowers should go beyond the last holiday cookie, here's a big one: They're also huge assets to our physical health, says Stephen G. Post, Ph.D., author of Why Good Things Happen To Good People.
"Many people can feel a physical effect when they volunteer," he tells The Huffington Post. "It's kind of like if you stop eating ... donuts for a couple of days and start eating vegetables, you'll start feeling more energetic and less lethargic. These acts sort of have the same effect. You get that feeling of energy and robustness."
Below are seven ways a generous spirit and a grateful attitude can improve your physical well-being -- something that should be a priority all year 'round.
1. Being altruistic can lower your blood pressure.
When someone is down and out, sometimes just the giving of yourself is all you need to do. One 2006 study found that participants who offered social support for someone in trouble experienced lower blood pressure than the participants who didn't. Just being a shoulder to lean on can be the best kind of medicine.
"This is a really nice way of improving your life," Post said. "You're being authentic and genuine by helping someone, but as a byproduct or side-effect, there are these very interesting health benefits. It shows this behavior is getting in touch with something fairly deeply hard-wired in human nature."
2. Expressing gratitude can motivate you to exercise more.
Consider a gratitude journal your new gym bag essential. It sounds off-the-wall, but according to Robert Emmons, a gratitude researcher and psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, gratitude can actually help you achieve those fitness goals. In one 2003 study, Emmons and his colleagues found that those who regularly expressed thanks also engaged in more exercise.
3. Being charitable could help your heart.
Heart disease is a silent killer, and the symptoms are often the most overlooked. While the antidote isn't just volunteering, research implies that it may help. According to a 2007 report on the health benefits of giving back, those states with a higher rate of volunteers also had lower incidents of heart disease and better physical health.
Post points out that reducing susceptibility to heart disease also goes for kids. Since many adolescents live more sedentary lifestyles, getting out and going into the community is a great way to engage them physically, he said.
4. Thankfulness may lower your cholesterol.
Gratitude can physically protect your heart as well. In addition to also improving dietary behaviors and curbing use of substances like cigarettes and alcohol, gratitude can also lower your cholesterol, Emmons told Live Science. This is welcome news, especially as we age, since cholesterol tends to hike as we grow older.
5. Giving back could help you live longer.
Research published in 2013 shows that people who volunteer, whether it be serving at a community soup kitchen or visiting nursing homes, reduce their early mortality rate by 22 percent compared to those who abstain from giving back. Volunteers also reported higher life satisfaction.
Longevity and generosity could also come into play when it comes to addiction, Post says. Recovery groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, depend on the willingness to help others through sponsorships and social support. "Helping others is key in these kinds of programs," he said. "You can increase the likelihood of your own recovery if you're engaged in helping others recover, too, just by being empathetic, compassionate and generous toward them."
6. Practicing gratitude will help you sleep better.
Who doesn't want a more restful night's sleep? Experts suggest that expressing what you're thankful for will help you get the satisfying shuteye that often feels so elusive... and better sleep = better health. Research shows that lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain, hurt your heart and more.
7. Generosity and gratitude can reduce your stress.
While keeping your stress in check is crucial to your emotional well-being, it's also vital for your physical health. Too much stress can up your risk for stroke, mess with your respiratory system and disrupt your stomach. Generous gestures and expressing gratitude could help keep those anxious emotions at bay.
Note: A previous version of this story was published in November 2014.
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