Do This One Thing to Be Happier and Live Longer
Scientists have shown that kindness not only counteracts stress and depression, it’s also associated with improved physical health. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts studied a group of middle-aged adults and found that those who volunteered were less likely to have high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol.1 Being kind and volunteering has also been shown to improve self-esteem and provide meaning, value, and purpose to the one doing the good deed.2
It’s not simply the act of doing something good for someone else that matters, the intention behind the action is also important. Studies have shown that selfless caregivers, meaning the caregiver isn’t looking to advance their career, protect themselves or make a show of their kindness, have better health outcomes than those who are motivated by self-interest, such as advancing their career or expanding their social network.
Compared to those who were motivated by self-interest, those who volunteered with the more altruistic goal of helping others benefited more. They:
- lived longer
- had better mental and physical health
- had greater life satisfaction
- had fewer functional limitations
- experienced fewer falls
- had less disability
- had fewer symptoms of depression
- had a lower risk of dying.3,4,5
Some of the newest studies on the topic show that random acts of kindness appear to be natural painkillers, too.
A series of studies published in December 2019 in PNAS, a leading medical journal, found that helping others provides immediate pain relief for the person doing the good deed.6
Brain scans showed that the areas of the brain that process pain seemed to be instantaneously deactivated by the experience of giving. The researchers studied people who had acute pain but who were otherwise healthy and cancer patients who struggled with chronic pain. In the first group, people who donated blood to help earthquake victims experienced less pain than people who had their blood drawn for a routine test, despite being stuck with a larger needle.
Among the cancer patients, those who cooked and cleaned for others in their treatment centers experienced pain relief that was 62% greater than those who cooked and cleaned only for themselves. How much a person thought their actions made a difference was also an important factor that determined how much they benefited.
The researchers noted that the more people believed that their acts of generosity were helpful, the more the brain responded and blocked pain. This finding builds on the other studies that concluded people who were motivated primarily by a desire to help others, as opposed to volunteering to further their own career or boost their own status, had better health outcomes.
Researchers at the University of Oregon noted a similar phenomenon back in 2007.7 They found that when people were given money and then chose to donate it rather than keeping it all for themselves, it activated the brain’s pleasure centers—even more than when they received the money in the first place.
This is because acts of kindness boost serotonin and dopamine, chemicals in the brain that make you feel satisfied and happy by activating your pleasure centers. Ever feel warm and fuzzy after you give to charity or help a stranger? This explains why.
Charitable acts also prompt your brain to release endorphins. Endorphins decrease pain and also increase mood.8 An observational study of 200 women over the age of 50 found that when women diagnosed with pain and depression improved when they volunteered.9 Those who volunteered less or not at all suffered from more pain had worse perceptions of their life purpose, harbored more depressive symptoms, and were less physically active. But the women who regularly volunteered experienced a greater sense of purpose and reported feeling less intense pain.
A bad back or achy knee can determine whether or not you can play with your kids at the park, get in regular workouts, or even get out of bed on a given day. When battling chronic pain rules our life like this, depression can take hold quite quickly. And while dietary supplements like Joint Relief can help, significant relief can also come when people focus on helping others.
When you focus on what you can give instead of what you can get, the research is clear. Not only does it reduce pain, but it improves mood, increases your life satisfaction, and reduces your risk for heart disease, falling, disability, and dying early. There’s a lot of need in our communities. Pick something you love and take that passion and use it to help others. You’ll feel better and be better for it.
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1Burr, Jeffrey A. Volunteering and Cardiovascular Disease Risk: Does Helping Others Get “Under the Skin?”. Gerontologist. 2016, 56(5):937–947. [Article]
2Thoits PA, Hewitt LN. Volunteer work and well-being. J Health Soc Behav. 2001;42(2):115-131. [Article]
3Konrath, Sara, Brown, Stephanie, Fuhrel-Forbis, Andrea, et al. Motives for Volunteering Are Associated With Mortality Risk in Older Adults. Health Psychology. 2012; 31(1):87–96.[Article]
4Yeung JWK, Zhang Z, Kim TY. Volunteering and health benefits in general adults: cumulative effects and forms. BMC Public Health. 2017;18(1):8. [Article]
5Burr JA, Han SH, Tavares JL. Volunteering and Cardiovascular Disease Risk: Does Helping Others Get “Under the Skin?”. Gerontologist. 2016;56(5):937-947. [Article]
6Wang, Tilu, Ge, Jianqiao, Zhang, Hanqi, et al. Altruistic behaviors relieve physical pain. PNAS. Dec. 30, 2019;117(2).950–958. [Article]
7Harbaugh, William T., Mayr, Ulrich, Burghart, Daniel R. Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations. Science. Jun.15, 2007; 316 (5831):1622–5. [Article]
8Mayo Clinic Health System. The art of kindness. Jan. 3, 2019. [Web Page]
9Salt, Elizabeth, Crofford, Leslie, Seerstrom, Suzanne, et al. The Mediating and Moderating Effect of Volunteering on Pain and Depression, Life Purpose, Well-Being, and Physical Activity. Pain Management Nursing. Aug. 2017;18(4):243–249.[Article]
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