“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
Ahhh, the golden rule. We have been taught from a young age to be kind to others because that is how we would like others to treat us.
That’s a great rule of thumb. Unfortunately, your kindness may not always be reciprocated. Uh oh. How do you feel then?
As it turns out, the answer is: great! We tend to gain an intrinsic reward from helping others. Even more surprisingly, the reward involves both becoming happier AND improvements in your health.
You are probably very curious how altruistic behavior can benefit your health (does that even make sense?…whatever).
For starters, giving social support has been associated with decreased morbidity in older adults across a diverse array of cultures1. Receiving social support conferred no benefit on mortality. This association held even after controlling for a variety of other factors.
That’s great, but it still doesn’t tell us why altruism helps you live longer or in what specific ways your health improves. A literature review by Stephen Post will hopefully shed some light on this issue.
The “How” And “Why” Of The Many Benefits Of Kindness
First, let’s talk about mental health. Adults who volunteer had significantly higher levels of morale, self-esteem, positive affect, and well being, as well as decreased depressive symptoms than those who didn’t. Another study found that giving help was more positively associated with mental health than receiving help.
So, why does volunteering make us happier?
There are a few plausible reasons. For one thing, volunteering makes you feel more socially connected with others. It also distracts you from your own problems, because the time you spend volunteering is focused on other people. In addition, helping others can add meaning to your life.
Mounting evidence suggests that our brains are wired to promote cooperation and altruism2. Whatever the reason, helping others contributes to your happiness3.
Health Benefits Of Kindness
Now, onto physical health. A study that followed women for 30 years found that 52% of those who did not belong to a volunteer organization experienced major illness compared to 36% of those who were a part of a volunteer organization. Less risk of major illness? Sign me up.
Another large study found that modest amounts of volunteering was associated with lower risk of death. Simply volunteering at all conferred benefits.
Need more evidence of improved longevity? How about a 44% decreased risk of death in community dwelling individuals who spent time volunteering for two or more organizations compared to those who did not volunteer? Compare that to a 30% reduced mortality for those who exercise four or more times per week. Yikes.
“But Mike, I’m not elderly! Will I benefit from helping others?”
Yes, whippersnapper, you will. When studying long term AIDS survivors, it was found that spirituality is a predictor of survival. “Helping others with HIV” accounted for a significant portion of that relationship. More simply, it doesn’t matter how old you are.
“Ok, great. Maybe I’ll live longer if I help others…but why the heck would that be the case?”
To be honest, science has yet to fully explain it. But volunteering has been shown to decrease cortisol levels (the stress hormone). Interestingly, individuals who watched a film about Mother Theresa were found to have increased levels of the protective antibody immunoglobulin-A. And remember, that’s just from watching a movie about helping people!
If you consider forgiveness to be an example of kindness, then think about this: unforgiving thoughts have been clearly shown to cause significantly higher heart rate and blood pressure. Adopting a forgiving mindset may prevent these negative physical changes.
“Ok, Mike. I’m convinced that volunteering can be healthy. But I just don’t have time!”
Not so fast.
New research shows that you can increase your subjective perception of “time affluence” by giving away your time through volunteering4. This counter-intuitive result means that despite only having 24 hours in a day, you can feel like you have all the time in the world if you spend some of it on others!
How is this even possible? The researchers hypothesized that spending time on others makes you feel more efficient and accomplished, which increases your perception of time. Perhaps most surprising of all the four experiments covered in that paper, giving time away increased feelings of time affluence even more than being given a windfall of free time!
Philanthropy And Happiness
Being nice to others isn’t just a matter of compassion, volunteering, or community service. Philanthropy, or donating money to good causes, is another way of helping others. Despite being less direct or “hands on”, philanthropy is another great way of making yourself happier.
“Woah, woah, woah, slow down Mike. If I give away more of my money, then I won’t be able to buy things or do things that would make me happy!”
Sure, money can buy happiness. But only to a certain extent. In fact, we consistently overestimate the effect that a lower income will have on life satisfaction5. In other words, having less money to spend on yourself is not as bad as you think it is.
And that’s good, because spending your money on other people will make you happier6. Spending money on others predicted greater happiness in studies involving surveys as well as ones investigating how individuals spend windfalls. Providing even more evidence, individuals randomly assigned to spend money on others had greater happiness than those who were told to spend the money on themselves.
Practice These 3 Types Of Kindness
If you want to experience the many personal benefits of being a nice person, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, you can’t solely be doing your good deeds in an attempt to feel good. You must genuinely want to help others in order to be happier from your act of kindness. Luckily, most of us are fundamentally good people who want to help others, so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Second, you can’t be so kind as to burden yourself. If you feel obligated to help others all the time, you might want to scale down the amount of time you spend on other people. After all, you need to take care of yourself as well. Again, for most people, this is not going to be too much of a problem.
Having got those warnings out of the way, what can you do to help brighten someone else’s day? Here are three general categories of kindness.
1. Volunteer. There are likely dozens of community service organizations local to you. Pick one that you feel is a particularly good cause, and spend just a couple of hours per week offering help. You might want to help out at an orphanage, soup kitchen, hospital, or school. Or you might want to volunteer with a religious or political organization.
2. Philanthropy. Consider imposing a “tithe” on yourself and donating 10% of every paycheck to charitable causes that you support. There are even more possible targets for your philanthropy than community service, and I have no doubt that you can find 100 or more that you care about.
3. Random acts of kindness. These are the little things you can do that will make someone’s day. The possibilities here are limitless, but here are a few suggestions off the top of my head:
- Smile at a stranger.
- Pay for the person on line behind you at the coffee shop.
- Give your spare change to a homeless man. Better yet, have a normal conversation with them instead of ignoring them, like most people do.
- Fill someone’s parking meter that is about to expire.
- Give a compliment to a friend or stranger.
- Write a thank you note or otherwise express gratitude.
- Give someone a gift on a day that isn’t a holiday or their birthday.
- Help someone carry something when their hands are full.
- Give someone a ride.
- Cook for someone, or bake cookies for everyone in your office.
- Encourage someone to follow their dreams, push through a fear, or do something difficult yet important.
And that’s just off the top of my head. There are a gazillion ways you can brighten someone’s day, and you should make a habit of regularly performing random acts of kindness.
For more specific ideas, see the resources below.
Local Independent Charities: http://www.lic.org/search.asp
One of the best ways to feel good yourself is to make others feel good. Kindness in its many forms is incredibly effective both at making you happier and healthier at the same time.
Go do something nice for someone today, and let me know how it makes you feel.