The Amazing Health Benefits of Kindness
Today I’m going to let you in on a secret that researchers have found to be one of the single most powerful ways to improve your health. And it’s so strange, you probably wouldn’t have thought of it.
Normally, when we think about how to be healthy, we think about nutrition and exercise. But most of us don’t think about being kind to others. Yet it turns out, being kind to others may have benefits that are even more important than the things we normally think about. In today’s article I’m going to explain how it works and some easy things you can do to improve your health starting today.
The History of Altruism Research
It turns out that philosophers and physicians in ancient times knew well the power of kindness. But along the way, that knowledge got lost around a hundred years ago. Instead, the main focus of health research switched to nutrition and exercise.
But starting in the 1950s, a group of researchers re-discovered the power of kindness. The team found was that people who did more volunteer work were healthier. They continued to follow the same participants for 30 years, and the connection between volunteering to help others and the health of the volunteer grew stronger. In fact, they found that those who did not regularly volunteer to help others had a significantly higher likelihood of developing a major illness.
Other studies since have found the same thing. People who do kind acts for others regularly have better health. The effects are greater than exercise, in fact. And one study found that people who volunteer are 44 percent less likely to die prematurely.
Biology Of Kindness
The benefits of kindness are now indisputable. But researchers weren’t sure how being kind improves health. And like most people, you might find it a bit odd that being kind can improve your health. But scientists have found a number of good reasons why kindness is beneficial.
As I’ve mentioned many times in previous articles, one of the major factors that contributes to health problems is chronic stress. In the United States most adults develop increasing levels of stress hormones as they age. The result can be all kinds of negative consequences such as heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and cancer. That’s because stress hormones increase inflammation and blood pressure while reducing immunity, among other negative consequences.
But you don’t have to succumb to stress. There are many effective ways to manage stress and to keep your stress hormones low, even into old age. I cover many of them in these articles, and among them is kindness.
Researchers have found that when we are kind our stress hormone levels drop significantly. And the effects remain for a while. So the more often we do acts of kindness, the more stable our state of low (healthy) levels of stress hormones becomes.
What is impressive is that research has shown that even watching kindness can reduce stress hormones. In one study participants watched a video of Mother Teresa working with the poor in Calcutta. Afterward their stress hormone levels had dropped and their immune systems were functioning better than before.
Other research has shown that kindness increases levels of a hormone called oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is what researchers call a hormone of “trusting relationships”. When you feel close and loving feelings for someone, oxytocin is at play.
Apart from helping you to feel good emotionally, oxytocin also has been shown to reduce high blood pressure and produce a long list of positive benefits.
The Results of Kindness
The research into kindness has turned up impressive results. Acts of kindness are more effective ways to improve health than exercise or nutrition alone.
One researcher wrote that kindness “contributes to the maintenance of good health, and it can diminish the effect of diseases and disorders serious and minor”.
Regular kindness has been shown to improve heart health, reduce depression, eliminate ulcers, reduce physical pain, and improve both the quality and the length of people’s lives.
How To Start
When most of us think of acts of kindness, we may make the mistake of thinking that it requires big time commitments and that it must be unpleasant. But that isn’t true. In fact, it’s only truly beneficial if you actually enjoy it. Remember, it has to make you feel good to benefit your health.
The good news is that research shows that there are many opportunities to benefit from kindness. Not only does doing acts of kindness offer benefits, but so does receiving and watching.
A good place to start, therefore, is to be willing to receive kindness more often. Keep an eye out for smiling strangers, and when someone holds the door for you, take a moment to say thank you and to really feel grateful for a simple act of kindness. Research shows that benefits you. Plus, it turns out that receiving someone else’s kindness - even something simple - is itself an act of kindness. When you receive someone’s kindness, you help them to feel better.
And remember the study in which the participants benefitted from merely watching a video of Mother Teresa. You can bring more kindness (and health benefits) into your life by choosing to watch more things that show kindness. Next time you are choosing a movie, keep that in mind.
And finally, of course, you can start to do more acts of kindness. If there is an volunteer organization that does work to help people which appeals to you, contact the volunteer coordinator and get started. But, of course, not everyone has the time or energy to do such things. So you can get the same benefits also from doing small acts of kindness for others. Holding the door for another, giving someone else your place in line, smiling at people on the street, and donating blood are all examples of ways you can do kind things for others.
Give as little or as much as you can. Every little bit of kindness you do helps you.