Dr. Kim Foster: Wicked Health


The Health Benefits of Generosity and Kindness

The Good In Doing Good

Random acts of kindness feel good. They feel good when you’re on the receiving side of the equation…and they feel even better when you’re on the giving side. But did you know there are health benefits, too?

Research is showing that people who help others actually become happier, healthier, and live longer than people who don’t.

Good for the mind

The mental health benefits of kindness are the most intuitive, of course. But now there's research to back this up. Doing good for others has been shown to reduce depression, decrease anxiety, and enhance well-being. It’s a documented stress-buster and happiness booster.

And it’s not just adults who benefit. A recent Australian study showed that toddlers under the age of two exhibit greater happiness when giving treats to others—even more so than when receiving the treats themselves.

Good for the body

Altruism appears to improve physical health and longevity, too. Several studies have demonstrated this. A study at the University of Michigan found that people who helped others—friends, relatives, and neighbours—had a reduced risk of dying, compared to people who didn't engage in altruistic acts. Other studies have confirmed this—and have gone further to show that the more you help others the more you reap the benefits yourself. People who volunteer have lower mortality rates, and people who volunteer for two or more organizations have a mortality rate reduced by 44% over non-volunteers. This is a huge number—a bigger effect than exercising four times weekly, in fact, and only slightly smaller than the effect caused not smoking.   

One of the physiologic effects that may explain the health benefits of helping other people is the release of oxytocin—the touch hormone, the bonding hormone. Oxytocin has received a lot of interest lately and is proving to have many significant health benefits, like decreased inflammation, improved wound healing, and decreased blood pressure.

Good for the soul

If you've ever volunteered or helped a charity, I think you know what I’m talking about when I use the term “helper’s high.” And now there’s research to show this is a real thing.

And the research is nice. But, truth be told, this is something people have long known.

Charles Dickens knew about it in 1843 when he created the character Ebenezer Scrooge: the ultimate curmudgeon who reformed his ways. With each generous act, Scrooge became more vibrant and sprightly, growing younger and happier before our eyes.

But we can go even further back to see the wisdom of altruism:

   If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.
   If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.
   If you want happiness for a month, get married.
   If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.
   If you want happiness for a lifetime...help someone else.

                     -Chinese Proverb

Small Gestures To Pay It Forward

Now, this is all very nice, but as a mom, doesn't it feel like you’re already doing enough for other people, namely your kids? How can you possibly add “good deeds” to your list of things to do? Well, fact is, all this research into the health benefits of altruism was started in the 1950s when researchers happened to be studying...guess who? Yep, a bunch of moms

Researchers at Cornell University School of Medicine were studying a group of married women with children, over a period of 30 years, and were surprised to find that the number of children, education, class, and work status didn’t influence how long the women lived. What did? Whether the women volunteered or not. Moms who helped others tended to live longer than moms who didn’t.

Still, it’s not easy to find the time. So why not do your good deeds in bite-sized format? A helping hand here and there can go a long way. Small gestures only take a moment but they can make a big difference.  

Here are some ideas of little things you can do:

Hold the door open for someone

Pay the toll for the car behind you 

Pass on a book you enjoyed

Offer to look after a friend’s kids

Donate your old things to charity

Make someone new feel welcome

Give someone a hug