NEWS

Why Giving–and Receiving–Is Good for You

women exchanging gifts with champagne

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study shows positive social relationships can reduce inflammation levels. 
  • Inflammation can be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and cancer, among other health conditions.
  • The study analyzed data among middle-aged adults, though preliminary research findings show similar benefits among younger people. 

During the holiday season, the virtue of giving is encouraged, and indeed celebrated. It turns out that giving may also be directly beneficial to your health. 

According to new findings published in the journal Brain Behavior and Immunity, giving support to those who matter most is associated with lower inflammation levels in the blood.

“I think the main takeaway is to try to be compassionate and have the intention to support other people,” Tao Jiang, lead author of the paper and doctoral candidate in the department psychology at The Ohio State University, told Verywell. “Mutuality is important, so don't just rely on people to support you.”

“The two way route is always better than a one way road,” added Syamil Yakin, second author of the paper and a research assistant at department of psychology at The Ohio State University. “That's how I would simplify [our research].”

The Relationship Between Giving, Receiving, and Inflammation

Previous research has found that positive social relationships are beneficial for people’s health. In fact, research shows that a lack of social relationships is associated with a 50% increase in the odds of death, which is comparable to other risk factors such as smoking or obesity.

It’s not clear why social relationships have such an impact on physical health, though scientists are trying to find the underlying link. Some research has focused on inflammation.

Inflammation is the immune system’s defense response to harmful stimuli, by which it acts to remove the stimuli and spur the healing process. These harmful stimuli can be in response to an injury or an infection, such as COVID-19. 

Inflammation can also be caused by psychosocial stressors. Chronic psychosocial stressors can heighten chronic systemic inflammation, a well-known contributor to many health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

“Positive social relationships can reduce psychosocial stress, which could reduce chronic systemic inflammation and therefore improve physical health,” the authors wrote.

What Is Psychosocial Stress?

Examples of psychosocial stress can include anything that translates to a perceived threat to our social status, social esteem, respect, and/or acceptance within a group; threat to our self-worth; or a threat that we feel we have no control over. All of these threats can lead to a stress response in the body. These can be some of the most taxing stressors to deal with, as they can make us feel unsupported and alienated. This can make it more difficult to cope.

A New Focus

Jiang and his colleagues looked at whether the link between inflammation and important social relationships (i.e., relationships with family, friends and spouses) is moderated by support-giving and support-receiving.

That’s different from previous research that only focused only on support-giving. It’s also different from altruism research that looks at the benefits of giving indiscriminately.

“Of course, volunteering, altruism and helping strangers is very important for our society,” Jiang said. “But for a specific person, they spend most of their time with close others like their spouse, with their friends, with their family members. Those are the most important social relationships they have in their life. We wanted to demonstrate how those interactions and feelings about those relationships–how they intend to support those relationships–can help their health.”

To test their hypothesis, Jiang and his colleagues used data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the U.S. of healthy middle-aged adults who reside in the U.S. The 4,963 participants were originally surveyed in 1995-1996 and again 2004-2006 for follow-up.

As part of the survey, participants answered questions about behavioral, social and psychosocial factors related to physical and mental health. Roughly two years later, a subsample of participants completed comprehensive biomarker assessments and answered additional questions.

One of those biomarkers was interleukin-6 (IL-6), an indicator of systemic inflammation. Higher levels of IL-6 are associated with an increased risk for many diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. Participants were excluded from analyses if they were taking oral or inhaled corticosteroids, immunosuppressants and immunostimulants, as those can affect IL-6 levels.

The Findings

Jiang and his colleagues found that perceived support-giving moderates the relationship between inflammation and the other social indicators. In other words, strong personal relationships are associated with lower inflammation, but only for those who perceive themselves as being able to contribute to those relationships in a positive way. 

“I was pleasantly surprised that the results held up under all of the variables that we controlled for because we controlled for a lot of variables,” Yakin said, explaining they controlled for age, body mass index (BMI), history of smoking, exercise, certain medications, and certain chronic conditions, such as heart attack, cancer and depression. “There's a whole list of things that we added into the model to see if mutual support still was significant.” 

It was. The role of support-giving could be the key to why other research has had mixed results on the link between social relationships and inflammation. 

The authors surmise that, “Perhaps when people believe they can give more support in their positive relationships with others, these mutually supportive relationships are especially rewarding and stress relieving, which reduces inflammation.”

Syamil Yakin, The Ohio State Research Assistant

When people think about health, it's diet changes and exercise and supplements. They don't think about making more friends or spending more time with family. That's good for your health, but people don't necessarily make that connection.

— Syamil Yakin, The Ohio State Research Assistant

Potential Health Benefits of Connection

While more research is needed, it’s clear that focusing on connecting with and supporting close ties is good for your mental, emotional and even physical health. Social support-giving may also be something doctors can discuss with patients who have high levels of inflammation.

“Of course, this is not the only factor,” Jiang said. “Eating, exercise, and other factors can influence people’s inflammation.

Jiang said a physician might need to gather more information from a patient to get to the root of the problem.

"[For example,] if they’re a smoker, asking them to quit smoking can be beneficial," he said. "But if they don’t have a positive relationship, or they only receive support or perceive support from others but don't give support or don’t have intention to give support to others, I think that is a good suggestion for them, so they can leverage their positive social relationships to make them healthier.”

There is more that researchers seek to understand about inflammation, the immune system, and the gut microbiome. Still, these findings are encouraging and empowering for those who want to reduce their inflammation. 

“I think this is a good addition to the holistic approach of looking at health,” Yakin said. “When people think about health, it's diet changes and exercise and supplements. They don't think about making more friends or spending more time with family. That's good for your health, but people don't necessarily make that connection.”

What This Means For You

New research suggests that supporting your closest personal relationships is linked to lower levels of inflammation. In the long run, this can protect against conditions like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Data Limitations and Future Research

Jiang explained that they looked for public data sets to test their hypothesis, but the National Survey of Midlife Development in the U.S. was the only one they could find that asked about support-giving. 

“I think it’s not as obvious to people that giving support is good for you, so they would never have thought to include it in their research studies and their surveys and their questionnaires,” Yakin said.

They hope their findings will encourage other researchers to include more questions and collect more data about support-giving or intention to give support in their studies so that the overall scientific community will have more data to understand this effect for both men and women.

Jiang and his colleagues noted that preliminary findings show the effects of perceived support-giving and inflammation reduction were significant only in women, though they recommend further research. 

“There's something to be said about generational or cohort effects, because this data is from 1995-96 and 2004-06,” Yakin said. “Things might have changed in that 10 years, maybe the effects are stronger. We don't know that yet, and this data collection is still ongoing, so we might have to wait another five or six more years and then conduct another analysis.” 

Next Steps

The data set Jiang and his colleagues used focused on middle-aged adults. Now, they are seeing if they will find similar results among younger people. They are researching how college-aged people use social media and how those interactions may affect their health by measuring levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), another biomarker of inflammation. 

“We think there is preliminary data to link social media and physical health, but we need to do more research to look at how people perceive support and receive support and also give support in social media platforms and how that influences people’s health,” Jiang said. 

They’re also conducting similar research on support-giving and support-receiving in adolescents. Preliminary findings show mutual support is associated with lower levels of CRP. In other words, they’re finding the same health benefits in their data collection with adolescents today as they found studying data of adults collected more than 15 years ago.

“We find that mutual support, which means that people giving support also receiving support at the same time, is associated with lower levels of CRP,” Jiang said. “If people are only giving support, there's an association. If people are only receiving support, there's no association. When people give as well as receive, it helps people decrease inflammation.”

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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