12/20/2011 01:59 EST | Updated 02/18/2012 05:12 EST

Can Giving Make You Healthier?

We all know it feels good to give. Whether it's a buck or a cup of coffee donated to the homeless guy or a gargantuan gift to a girlfriend, it's a rush. As I mention in the very last chapter of my book, Ace Your Health, 52 Ways to Stack Your Deck, (which will feel awesome to give as a gift for Christmas, just sayin') "The endorphin release that you obtain when you do something nice is like none other."

But did you know it can also increase your longevity, improve your strength by up to 20 per cent, provide immediate stress relief and an immune boost too?

This stuff's the real deal! And it is absolutely free.

It kind of makes sense for the survival of the species, when you think about it. If you were the designer of humans, how would you ensure that the process of "survival of the fittest" doesn't kill off all the "weak" ones? You would program a little reward centre in the brain that responds when one gives, serves or helps another. A brain centre that is so powerful that it lights up brighter when you win at the casino: bells, whoops and whistles included. Pretty big survival assurance stuff, despite what happens on television survival shows.

Why is our world so inhospitable then? We all know it's true, we just forget sometimes. During the holidays we are reminded to give, share, and donate by blessed bells at shopping malls and food bank commercials. The net result is good for everyone. The recipient gets a roof over their head or a much-needed meal and the giver gets a health boost surge called the "helper's high." Who says money can't buy you health? Maybe it can if you give it away.

There is one big fat caveat, though. You can't help others so much that you are overwhelmed by the task. In one study nuns who expressed more positive emotions lived longer and were somewhat more protected from dementia. There is a big difference, though, between us regular folks and nuns. For the latter, life is expected to be communal and daily tasks shared so the support network is strongly intact. Under these circumstances, it is easier to give without falling apart. The stress of daily life and laundry makes it much harder to live completely altruistically. Not impossible, just tougher.

The lesson here is like that of the airplane in trouble, where it is wise to put on your own oxygen mask first lest you pass out while helping another.

But you don't need extra time or oxygen to dig deep for loose change. You don't need anything but intent to give away something as small as a nod, smile, or compliment. And you surely don't need much more than a larger pot to double your soup batch for someone who is under the weather.

I am wondering if you will be more inclined contribute now that you know how much you get back? It isn't selfish, it is self-preservation.