The Amazing Health Effects of Kindness

May 08, 2019

We spend a lot of time talking about how we can improve our health for a better, more fulfilled life, but how much time do we spend thinking about improving the lives of others? And are the two linked? Keep reading to find out how kindness toward others may really be kindness to yourself as well.

We all face decisions throughout every day to act in ways that benefit ourselves or on behalf of others. Sometimes it may seem like these two goals are in conflict. If two people want the same parking spot (for a very mild example), only one of them can have it. Giving it up for the other person’s sake may seem like a loss for you in the short-term, but the reality is that putting others ahead of yourself may have long-term health benefits.

As with anything, we have to practice kindness and selflessness with wisdom. Sometimes, what looks like an act of kindness may be just the opposite, if it’s not beneficial for the other person’s overall wellbeing. As we weigh these decisions, we probably won’t always get it right. But as a general rule, if we’re motivated by a desire to give our own selfish desires a backseat to the needs and wellbeing of others, everyone will be better off in the long run. This includes our health. Behaving kindly, compassionately, or selflessly toward others, promotes empathy, and gratitude in us, which can in turn reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and sadness. Not only that, kindness to others has an impact on our physical health. Loving others can boost the immune system, reduce blood pressure, and improve sleep. And of course, selflessness plays a key role in keeping our relationships healthy, which can lead to reduced stress and greater enjoyment of life.

Here are just a few of the benefits kindness toward other people has on your health.

Kindness increases Serotonin production

Serotonin[1] is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in some of the body’s most important functions. It helps regulate the body’s sleep cycle, and is believed to play a role in appetite, digestion, bowel function, and moods. Low serotonin levels have been linked to depression and poor sleep.

Recent studies have suggested that performing acts of kindness or helping others boosts immunity, and increases your body’s production of serotonin. So when you help others, you may be helping yourself fight off illness, getting better rest, and even improving your moods.

Kindness triggers Dopamine

Dopamine is a chemical messenger in the brain that is often referred to as a “feel-good hormone” because increased dopamine levels result in a feeling of pleasure, and a sense of reward[2]. If you find that you’re not feeling a response to something that would normally make you feel motivated or excited, you may have low levels of dopamine. This hormone plays a key role in multiple body functions[3] including locomotion, memory, cognition, and emotion, just to name a few. Acts of kindness toward others have been shown[4] to activate the release of dopamine, resulting in increased motivation, and feelings of wellbeing.

Kindness reduces depression and increases happiness

A 2018 study[5] assessed 3 groups of individuals as they journaled their interpersonal relationships. One of the groups was assigned a loving kindness meditation exercise, while a second group was given an acts of kindness exercise. Research found that both the experimental groups reported significantly reduced symptoms of depression, and increased life satisfaction compared to the control group, especially those who participated in the acts of kindness exercise.

Additionally, studies show that depression is often linked to low feelings of self-worth. Many times, our instinct is to try to improve our self-worth by improving the way others see us, or seeking their approval. Unfortunately, this often leads to unnecessary stress on relationships, increased conflict, and can make things worse in the long run. On the flip side, one study[6] demonstrated that people who focused on compassionate goals—helping others and refraining from selfish behaviors—instead of self-image, experienced reduced depression and less relationship strain.

A 2017 study[7] found that while self-centeredness and selfishness result in fluctuating, or temporary levels of happiness, selfless people were much more likely to experience authentic and durable happiness. This should not be surprising! In many other cases, including diet, exercise, or the pursuit of other life goals, we undertake difficult tasks that don’t bring immediate satisfaction but do come with lasting rewards. We also know that in most of these cases, indulging in the activity that brings momentary happiness, often costs more over time. That’s why we choose to go the gym, even when we’d rather watch TV. The same concept applies to putting others before ourselves!

Kindness reduces chronic pain

Studies suggest that acts of kindness can even reduce chronic pain. In a 2002 study[8], participants found they experienced less pain and depression after they started to serve as volunteers for others who were also suffering from chronic pain. According to the study, participants experienced a sense of purpose and a connection with others that coincided with reduced symptoms of pain and depression.

Kindness keeps relationships strong

In healthy relationships and friendships, even small acts of kindness toward the other person promotes feelings of connection, understanding, and affection. Listening to what the other person says and responding with interest, or taking time to do something thoughtful can soften conflict, and make the other person feel loved and important. It’s important to note that some relationships with unhealthy people cannot be fixed by being more thoughtful or more selfless. There are situations in which the really kind thing to do for both yourself and the other person is cut off the relationship. But in non-toxic relationships, a little kindness goes a long way.

Do something selfless today

The bottom line is, multiple studies have found that loving and serving other people produces positive health results. Remember that proper self-care is extremely important. Without good health, we won’t have the energy or physical resources we need to help others. But it’s also true that loving other people as much as we love ourselves is actually essential to our health, relationships, and emotional well-being. So, do something to help someone else today! It doesn’t have to be a big or extravagant gesture. Buy someone a cup of coffee or a gift card. Let a stranger go ahead of you in the grocery line. Think about something small that might bless your spouse, parents, friends, or children. Start making an effort to elevate the needs of others over your own desires, and you’ll soon find that you are reaping the benefits yourself.

References

[1] McIntosh, J. (2018, February 2). "What is serotonin and what does it do?." Medical News Today. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/kc/serotonin-facts-232248.

[2] Dopamine, learning, and reward-seeking behavior. Arias-Carrión O, Pŏppel E. Acta Neurobiol Exp (Wars). 2007;67(4):481-8. Review.

[3] [Dopamine: not just a neurotransmitter]. Drozak J, Bryła J. Postepy Hig Med Dosw (Online). 2005;59:405-20. Review. Polish.

[4] Nelson KS, Layous K, Cole SW et al. Do Unto Others or Treat Yourself? The Effects of Prosocial and Self-Focused Behavior on Psychological Flourishing. Emotion. 2016.

[5] Mongrain, M., Barnes, C., Barnhart, R., & Zalan, L. B. (2018). Acts of kindness reduce depression in individuals low on agreeableness. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 4(3), 323-334.

[6] Crocker, J., Olivier, M. A., & Nuer, N. (2009). Self-Image Goals and Compassionate Goals: Costs and Benefits. Self and identity : the journal of the International Society for Self and Identity, 8(2-3), 251–269. doi:10.1080/15298860802505160.

[7] Dambrun M. (2017). Self-centeredness and selflessness: happiness correlates and mediating psychological processes. PeerJ, 5, e3306. doi:10.7717/peerj. 3306.

[8] From chronic pain patient to peer: benefits and risks of volunteering. Arnstein P, Vidal M, Wells-Federman C, Morgan B, Caudill M. Pain Manag Nurs. 2002 Sep;3(3):94-103.

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