A Time to Give and a Time to Give Thanks

The benefits of gratitude and generosity for seniors and caregivers

Senior man cuts the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving is the beginning of the holiday season, when we not only think of giving thanks, but also of giving to others. This year, in the wake of a string of deadly hurricanes, destructive wildfires, acts of violence, and political turmoil arising even around the family table, it might be a little harder to access our sense of gratitude and generosity. But it's worth it for so many reasons.

Neurologists and anthropologists who study gratitude and generosity say that these twin impulses are very important for the survival of our highly social species, and for an individual's emotional well-being. Here's what they've found.

Why be grateful?

Medical studies show that feeling and expressing gratitude provides powerful health benefits, reducing inflammation and depression, improving heart function and sleep quality, and even lengthening life. Why would this be? For one thing, say experts from Baylor University, being grateful for what we have is far less stressful than wanting more. Said associate professor Jo-Ann Tsang, Ph.D., "Gratitude is a positive mood. It's about other people. People are motivated to help people that help them — and to help others as well. We're social creatures, and so focusing on others in a positive way is good for our health."

Tsang says that without a sense of gratitude, we can get onto the "Treadmill of Consumption," where we want more and more, never stopping to appreciate what we have. She quotes the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus: "Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for."

Feeling and expressing gratitude are especially important in a caregiving relationship. A research team from the University at Buffalo wanted to find out why caregiving is stressful and burdensome for some caregivers, putting them at higher risk of physical and mental illness — while others find it a positive, rewarding experience. What factors account for the difference? Said study author Michael Poulin, "Spending time attempting to provide help can be beneficial for a caregiver's mental and physical well-being, but only during those times when the caregiver sees that their help has made a difference and that difference is noticed and recognized by their partner." He explained that caregivers "feel happier and report fewer physical symptoms when they believe their help is appreciated."

Why be generous?

We usually like it when someone does something nice for us — yet anthropologists tell us that the giver often gains an even larger emotional boost from the act than does the receiver. A study from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School, published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, examined this puzzle. According to the researchers, "Giving away money or spending it on others confers the ironic psychological benefit of increasing the giver's sense of wealth." And this doesn't only apply to material goods. The authors noted that "giving time to others — from helping with homework to shoveling a neighbor's driveway — actually makes people feel that they have more time. In fact, giving time away alleviates people's sense of time famine even more than receiving unexpected windfalls of free time."

Scientists today can even observe generosity in action in the brain. "Doing something nice for another person gives many people a pleasant feeling that behavioral economists call a warm glow," noted University of Zurich experts Philippe Tobler and Ernst Fehr. They used imaging to study the interaction of three distinct brain areas that work together to produce a sense of happiness when a person experiences feelings of altruism. (Read more about the study here.)

These findings are good news for seniors, because researchers from the National University of Singapore recently conducted a study that confirmed that people become, on average, more generous with age. While people of every age tend to be generous to their friends and family, seniors are increasingly kind even to people they don't know, even if their generosity is unlikely to be returned. Seniors are the age group most likely to volunteer, and least likely to value a large accumulation of wealth. Explained assistant professor Yu Rongjun, "Greater generosity was observed among senior citizens, possibly because as people become older, their values shift away from purely personal interests to more enduring sources of meaning found in their communities."

So this year as we gather around the turkey — or tofurkey, if that's your preference — exercising generosity with friends, family, community, country and planet truly is something to be grateful for.

Senior couple looking at tablet computer

One Note During This Season of Giving

Many seniors celebrate the season by giving to others — not only family members, but also charitable organizations. Unfortunately, con artists are quick to take advantage of our generosity, creating phony charities in order to finance their own lavish lifestyle. The Federal Trade Commission offers information to help you and your loved one choose worthy organizations, so you can be assured your money will truly be used to help others. Read more here

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.