Can giving bring you better health, more joy and a longer life? Pasadena psychologist Annette Ermshar says yes, it can.

We all know two kinds of people: those who give and those who don’t. People we’d turn to in times of emotional or financial crisis, and those we’d avoid because they always seem too focused on themselves. Of course, we’d probably never think to categorize our friends and family that way, but mental health professionals have found such classifications to be a rewarding subject of study. Pasadena resident Annette Ermshar is one of those pros. A clinical psychologist with a private practice in San Marino, Ermshar has a Ph.D. in clinical and neuropsychology and a post-doctoral master’s degree in clinical psychopharmacology; she’s also a board-certified diplomate in forensic psychology, which is the intersection of law and mental health.
At 45, Ermshar has already seen the best and the worst sides of human nature. She now spends most of her time in private practice with “regular” clients who seek help and healing for challenges that affect their work and personal lives, but she also spent 16 years on staff at San Bernadino’s maximum-security Patton State Hospital, which treats mentally disordered, violent and insane individuals who’ve been remanded there by the courts. She is a mental health assessment expert for both state and federal courts and is on staff at Las Encinas mental health hospital in Pasadena.
We talked with Ermshar for this philanthropy issue because she’s also an expert on the subject of giving and its effects on mental and physical health. She has written and delivered talks on the subject, and is quite a giver herself. She says she has volunteered “countless hours” of her time for various nonprofits (the list is too long to print here) and she and her husband of nine years, Dan Monahan, have given financial support to organizations that promote the arts as well as the welfare of adults and children in need. Ermshar is chairman of the board of directors for Adventist Health Glendale Foundation, board vice president for the Pasadena Symphony and Pops, board vice-chair of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and a board member of The Music Center’s Blue Ribbon. She was formerly on the Seaver Board of Visitors of Pepperdine University (where she received her B.A. in 2000) for over a decade.
Ermshar grew up in La Caňada Flintridge and earned her Ph.D. from Loma Linda University (which is both of her parents’ alma mater) and her postdoctoral master’s degree in clinical psychopharmacology from Alliant International University. We asked her to talk about what givers get from giving.

Many associate the word “philanthropy” with rich people who donate large sums of money, but the word actually comes from the ancient Greek and simply means kindliness, benevolence and a love of humanity. I notice you don’t much use the word philanthropy in your talks but seem to prefer the word generosity, and you always link it to the benefits that accrue to those who give rather than to those who receive.
Yes, in my talks, I describe the physical and mental health benefits of generosity. If you look at the subject of giving as a whole, when we give of ourselves — whether it’s our time, our energy or our money — we are certainly benefitting others but we are also receiving a significant benefit to ourselves. There’s a wealth of research that shows that altruism and generosity have immense benefits to the giver. In general, the act of giving promotes mental and physical health, promotes positive brain changes that are associated with happiness, reduces our stress levels and even helps us live longer. There are scientific studies showing all of those things.

So generosity and altruism can mean any kind of giving, whether it’s emotional or financial support, or time donated volunteering — anything that is of benefit to others rather than to oneself?

You’ve said that spending money on others actually produces a greater level of happiness than spending it on yourself. That’s surprising.
Yes, there’s some really great science on that. Let me give you just one example: Researchers reviewed fMRIs [functional magnetic resonance images, which measure and map brain activity] and they found that the same reward system activated in the brain with someone who received money is also activated in the brain of those who give money to others. That means the brain and the body experience positive benefits from choosing altruism over personal or selfish interests. Ultimately the giver experiences greater happiness by giving to others rather than by giving to themselves.

You say that giving benefits physical health and reduces stress. Can you explain a bit more?
That’s right. Emotions related to altruism help to stabilize the immune system and help to fight against the immune-suppressing effects of stress. On the contrary, shame and selfishness are linked to higher levels of the hormone cortisol, which is the body’s main stress hormone. Acts of altruism also reduce pain by stimulating the brain to release “the happy hormones,” or endorphins, which are natural painkillers.

You’ve referred to studies that suggest those who give or volunteer can experience what’s called a “helper’s high” along with other significant benefits. Can you elaborate?
Yes, so among retirees, for example, researchers found that those who volunteer score significantly higher in life satisfaction and the will to live, compared to those that did not volunteer. Likewise, researchers reported fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and somatization [medical symptoms with no discernable cause] among individuals who volunteered. Altruism is often linked to deeper and more positive social integration, distraction from personal problems and distraction from anxiety. Giving has been shown to lend enhanced meaning and purpose in life and a sense of well-being.

Do the same health and happiness benefits accrue to those who support only close family members and close friends as opposed to those who support strangers and causes unrelated to them?
I think research would show that any time one is giving support to others, benefits accrue to the giver. Research shows that those who give social support to others have greater life expectancy and those others can be family or anyone else. I’ve seen research with the elderly who were taking over the role of parenting because their adult child either worked or had some kind of illness or addiction. This kind of parenting or grandparenting among the elderly resulted in very positive physical and mental health benefits to them. And as far as volunteering outside the family, a UC Berkeley study found that elderly people who volunteer for two or more organizations are 44 percent more likely to live longer than others who do not. So volunteering among the elderly is associated with lower risk of mortality, for sure. There’s also a great Duke University study of individuals with post-coronary artery disease. Those individuals who volunteered after their heart attacks reported reductions in despair and depression, which are two factors linked to increased mortality in this type of patient.

Do altruism and generosity depend on empathy?
I think they all go hand in hand: Altruism, empathy, generosity, compassion, those all work in harmony, they’re all sort of a similar construct. But you could have empathy and compassion, and that doesn’t necessarily mean you are giving. To be giving requires a step beyond all those traits, where you are actually taking action.

But in order to want to give, doesn’t one need to experience empathy and compassion?
Yes, that’s true.

A university study done recently found that three out of four students showed 50 percent less empathy than 30 years ago, and that the emergence of social media in the early 2000s helped to greatly accelerate that trend. Researchers said that texting instead of talking one-on-one eliminates the emotional connection, and that leads to lack of empathy. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed a drop in volunteerism among younger adults.
I’m not sure about the data you’re referring to because what’s very interesting to me is that there are a lot of millennials very interested in larger social causes and social justice, and I think that is a form of giving to others. Maybe not on an individual scale, but on a larger scale. And there’s a new trend of the millennial generation joining boards, with major corporations including 20somethings on their boards of directors. Heretofore this never really existed. For example, the hospital where I’m chairman of the board — we have someone on the board of directors who is in her 20s. This is just so wonderful because she has a great perspective and energy and has a donor demographic that is really important to include for any organization.

How did you get so involved with philanthropy and its effects on givers? You seem to have turned it into a kind of second vocation.
There are a few reasons. First, I was raised in a family that was very philanthropic and generous with their time and money, so it was a value I received from my parents. Second, because I do a lot of philanthropy, I wanted to better appreciate the effects it has on me. Third, I’m in the business of treating individuals for their mental health, inspiring in them hope and healing. It is really clear to me that generosity and giving is very beneficial to one’s mental health, which is what I’m in the business of doing. I’m constantly encouraging my clients to volunteer and engage in various forms of generosity.
When there’s a demonstrable reduction in despair and depression and a greater sense of purpose in life, you know, that’s music to my ears because that’s the whole dedication of my career.