A simple act of kindness can not only brighten someone else’s day, it may also help you live longer and experience a healthier life. Multiple studies have shown that helping others really does benefit you in return.
One study performed in Detroit surveyed 423 married couples over the age of 65. The couples that had helped others (besides each other) in the past year with tasks such as errands, transportation and childcare were half as likely to die over the next five years than those who did not help others.
According to Stephanie Brown, PhD, associate professor of preventative medicine at Stony Brook University, “we consistently find that volunteering and helping behavior is associated with a reduced risk of mortality. We see this over and over again in prospective studies that control for other variables, such as baseline health and gender.”
Helping others has been linked to reduced cortisol levels, and the release of oxytocin. Stephen G. Post, PhD, professor of preventative medicine at Stony Brook University, explains, “the caring connection system is related to the hormone oxytocin, often called the compassion hormone.”
Oxytocin helps to reduce stress while increasing social trust. Professor Brown says, “oxytocin is causally related to helping behavior… Oxytocin helps cells repair themselves, store nutrients and grow.”
She continues, “when we help others, we think that there is a release of oxytocin, and that interferes with the stress response.”
Enjoy a Greater Sense of Well-Being
Acts of kindness, and even thinking compassionately about others, have been shown to increase activity in the mesolimbic system of the brain. According to Professor Post, “it’s an evolutionarily ancient, emotional part of the brain. When people just think about giving, the body doles out feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, which has a soothing effect, and possibly serotonin, one of the brain chemicals we treat depression with. They feel joy and delight–helper’s high.”
Boost Your Heart Health
The reduction in stress, and consequently in cortisol levels, associated with helping others greatly benefits cardiovascular health. Lowered stress levels have been associated with a healthier heart. Studies have found that people who harbor a lot of hostility are more likely to have cardiovascular disease.
Reduce Your Risk of Dementia
Professor Post says, “cortisol is associated with hippocampal atrophy, which is in turn associated with dementia. Getting away from yourself, reaching out and contributing to the lives of others, especially in hard times when people are anxious about economic conditions, is a very healthy thing.”
Decrease Depression, Alleviate Pain and Increase Self-Confidence
One study of alcoholics participating in the Alcoholics Anonymous program found that participants who helped others were half as likely to have a relapse one year later. They also exhibited lower levels of depression.
Another study trained sufferers of multiple sclerosis (MS) to provide compassionate phone support for 15 minutes per month to others who suffered from MS. Results of the training showed that participants experienced lessened depression, felt more self-confident and had greater overall self-esteem.
A similar study of chronic pain sufferers who helped others in similar situations found that the helpers experienced less pain, and less depression.
Professor brown summarizes, if a helping situation puts you in close contact with people who you wind up caring about helping, that may have long-term benefits for your physical health. My advice is expose yourself to a genuine need for help, and your body will take over.”
-The Alternative Daily