Kindness Is Good for Your Health, Research Shows

From a Brethren Benefit Trust release.

Research shows that kindness and generosity have positive physiological effects. Researchers sometimes call this “helper’s high.” Two studies found that older adults who did volunteer work were living longer. Another study found a significant reduction in early death for people who volunteered often. This actually had a larger effect than regular exercise. In the 1990s, a study looked at personal essays written by nuns in the 1930s. The nuns who expressed the most positive emotions lived about 10 years longer than those who were less positive.

A few studies point to lowered stress and improved immunity when one is feeling empathy and love. Older adults who gave massage to infants lowered their stress hormones. In another study, students who watched a film on Mother Teresa showed an increase in protective antibodies associated with immunity. Students watching a more neutral film showed no change.

Another study identified high levels of oxytocin, a “bonding” hormone, in generous people. The oxytocin levels in children’s urine were studied, and it was found that levels in orphaned children were lower than in children raised in a caring home. Some researchers want to suggest that altruistic actions and caring physical touch increase oxytocin levels.

Oxytocin triggers the release of nitric oxide in blood vessels, which causes them to expand, lowering blood pressure. Thus oxytocin is a “cardioprotective” hormone, and kindness might be said to protect the heart. Oxytocin also reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardiovascular system, which play a major role in heart disease–another reason kindness is good for the heart.

A recent study reports the extraordinary story of a 28-year-old who walked into a clinic and donated a kidney, setting off a “pay it forward” ripple effect that spread across the country. It resulted in 10 people receiving new kidneys, all triggered by that one anonymous donor.

This is just a short summary of a few of the many studies of the effects of kindness and generosity. Science seems to verify what many of us know by intuition and common sense–that being kind and loving is good not just for those around us but for ourselves as well. When we read stories about random acts of kindness, or think of all the interesting things that have come from the “Pay it Forward” movement, we see that people do these many good acts not in order to be healthier or live longer, they do them…well, why do they do them?

We know that the impulse to do good is one of the profound, wonderful, and mysterious traits of human beings. Although it is deeply spiritual, we can be grateful for this research that shows how deeply physical it is too.

— This release was provided by Brethren Benefit Trust, and includes information adapted from “The Science of Good Deeds” by Jeanie Lerche Davis and “The Five Side Effects of Kindness” by Davie R. Hamilton.

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