Volunteering at a food bank, mentoring a younger person, treating a friend to a cup of coffee — acts of kindness like these not only can combat isolation and make you feel connected to others but also can have a positive effect on your happiness and well-being.
That’s because doing something for someone else triggers hormones affecting our moods, our stress levels, our brains and even our lifespans. “A growing body of scientific research shows that helping others, including engaging in formal volunteering activities, is related to better health outcomes in later life,” says Jeffrey Burr, professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.
Here are six ways that acts of kindness — large or small — can improve your physical health.
1. Makes you happier
A kind act, whether toward a group, another person or even yourself, boosts some of your hormones, the body’s chemical messengers. “Kindness can have a profound effect on the release of certain hormones,” says Marcie Hall, M.D., a senior attending physician in child and adolescent psychiatry at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.
One of these is oxytocin. Oxytocin is responsible for warm fuzzy feelings of contentment and happiness when we hug someone we love or complete a difficult job. For this reason, it’s sometimes called the “feel-good hormone."
Another hormone that responds positively to acts of kindness is serotonin. Serotonin, an ingredient of many antidepressants, decreases feelings of anxiety and increases happiness. Being kind also releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Endorphins affect the brain like drugs do, releasing a so-called “helper’s high,” similar to the runner’s high felt after exercise. In his book The Five Side Effects of Kindness, author David R. Hamilton says kindness produces a “totally legal high.”