By Christina Vercelletto
Illustration by Clare Mallison

Giving isn’t just about writing a check to your favorite charity. It’s also about spending the day volunteering—when you really need to clean out the garage. Or offering up your seat on the train to someone else. While these gestures often come from a selfless place, all of them have a positive kickback to you. And whether we’re generous with cash, time or compassion, research shows we can maximize the benefits—mentally and physically—of kind acts.

How to buy happiness

Get ready for a blissful bombshell: Spending as little as $5 on someone else could make us significantly happier, according to research done by the University of British Columbia. So grab an extra latte for your coworker or drop off a small bouquet with an elderly neighbor. “When you’re helping someone, the feeling of satisfaction creates hormones, such as epinephrine, dopamine and serotonin, that generate a feeling of well-being,” explains Ilan Shapiro, MD, medical director of health education at AltaMed in Los Angeles. 

I can attest to that magic firsthand. About a month before Christmas last year, a friend was laid off with no severance—and she and her husband were already struggling to stay afloat. She has six grandbabies she adores, so while I was in Walmart, on a whim, I picked out six toys, then left the bag on her stoop. She called me in tears. “I’ll never forget what you did for us,” she said. And I was happy. Happy not just in that moment but for days after. You probably would be too.

If you’re in a position to make big donations, “sustainability is the name of the game,” advises Ernest Rasyidi, MD, a psychiatrist with St. Joseph Hospital in Irvine, CA. Repeated acts of generosity have even better health benefits, not to mention that your acts of kindness will start to feel like second nature. Talk with your partner about why you want to support your alma mater’s scholarship fund or an Alzheimer’s research organization. “Then aim for an amount you can live with as a long-term commitment,” says Rasyidi. Many charities have the option of automated monthly gifts, which they acknowledge with an email alert. But you may get more of a boost by sitting down to issue that payment yourself each month.

How to do good deeds

While it can be hard to find the time, physically joining in to do volunteer work is worth it. “Personal connections always lead to the strongest results,” says Ras-yidi. Be a tutor, for example, if you had a teacher who changed your life, or help to organize a show for a local arts group if your mother loved to paint. Because of the connection, you’ll be more likely to stick with it. Think about your personality as well. If you’re a people person, working a blood drive for the Red Cross or chaperoning a trip for your kid’s school may be the best choice. Science says selfless giving can decrease depression and improve your sleep. What’s more, a University of California, Berkeley, paper noted that acts of kindness toward individuals can reduce your risk of illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

If you’ve been toying with the idea of volunteering but are not quite sure an afternoon of registering voters is right for you, stop thinking and just take the plunge. “Sometimes you have to get started, even if the positive feelings aren’t there, because with enough repetition, the benefits appear,” notes Rasyidi. If you’re thinking, “I just don’t have the energy and the headspace to be like those cheery volunteers,” that’s totally fine...but try anyway. Go spend an afternoon walking shelter dogs and see if that doesn’t end with the emotional boost you wanted it to begin with.

How to make words count

Sincere praise is just another form of generosity. Chris Bein, a mom in Babylon, NY, knows this all too well. She and her daughter, Sarah, used to make a game of seeing which of them could find someone to offer a thank-you or a compliment to first. “Especially those who aren’t appreciated enough, like the garbagemen, the UPS guy, the high school custodian or kids who seem left out,” explains Chris. Not only does the act reduce your own stress, but it’s also free—and easy. “How hard is it to say, ‘Your hair looks lovely today’ or ‘What a great outfit’?” says Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist in New York City, who notes that empathy and hearing people out has a similar impact. “It is generous to simply listen to a sibling or friend’s problems,” she says.

Just remember to be kind to yourself as well while you’re looking out for the world. Debra Buser, a mom of two teens, is greeted as “Momma Debra” around Langhorne, PA. Known for taking care of everyone, she’s a regular volunteer. But the secret to the longevity of her generous spirit is saying no once in a while. “I love to share my time with my neighbors, family, school community,” says Debra. “But taking a break to focus on myself now and then is what keeps it possible—and enjoyable.”