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6 Ways Kindness Is Good for You

How helping others can help improve your health

Volunteers tutoring students in classroom
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc

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.

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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.”

2. Lowers blood pressure

Oxytocin has another important function. In a domino-like effect, kindness boosts oxytocin, which releases nitric oxide, a chemical that plays a critical role in maintaining a healthy blood pressure. Nitric oxide counteracts the narrowing of arteries that accompanies aging and disease, improving blood flow through the body and lowering blood pressure. Studies show that healthy levels of nitric oxide can not only help lower chances of heart attack and stroke but also reduce dementia risk. In 2016, researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of California, Irvine found that financial generosity toward others lowered the blood pressure of the older adults engaged in the study to almost the same degree that starting a new blood pressure medicine would do.

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3. Improves heart health

The heart benefits in several ways from acts of kindness. As mentioned above, nitric oxide counteracts the effects of aging on the arteries and blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to all parts of the body. Results from a 2016 review of a national survey revealed that those who volunteered were less likely to have dangerous belly fat, a factor in heart disease, and high glucose levels, markers for diabetes. The 2016 study of the effect of spending money on others revealed that the effect of financial generosity matched the results achieved by more well-known cardiovascular interventions such as exercise and diet. “Acts of kindness are ‘cardioprotective,’ ” says Hall. “They’re good for the heart.” 

4. Strengthens the immune system

Besides boosting our mood and lowering our blood pressure, oxytocin also reduces inflammation in the body. Inflammation can be caused by stress, diet or the environment, and is linked to diseases like diabetes and cancer. Research has found that it may also speed up the aging process. Kindness sets up the body to decrease inflammation and slow aging, says Hall. 

But kindness can also strengthen immunoglobulin, an important part of the immune system found in saliva. In one Harvard University study, students were asked to watch a documentary on Mother Teresa. Their saliva was tested before and after watching the documentary, and the levels of secretory immunoglobulin A had increased significantly after watching the film. Not only that, but the effects were still seen an hour later. Just seeing a demonstration of kindness and love was enough to boost the immune system in an important way.

5. Makes your brain bigger

The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. “It is also really important as a biomarker for the prevention or delaying of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Michelle Carlson, a professor in the Department of Mental Health in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Unfortunately, that part of the brain shrinks as we age. But it turns out that volunteering can delay that process. 

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That’s what happened to participants in Baltimore’s Experience Corps, retired men and women who volunteered to mentor young schoolchildren over a period of two years. “We saw a steady improvement or maintenance of the hippocampus in the volunteers, but the controls showed the expected age-related decline,” says Carlson. “And more so in men than in women,” she adds.

The good news is that these habits are teachable, says Hall. “Anyone can adopt these habits.” Doing these things on a regular basis can “create new neural pathways,” Hall says, effectively rewiring the brain. 

6. Helps you live longer

That’s right. Buying your friend a cup of coffee could increase your lifespan. It does this by reducing cortisol, the basic stress hormone in the body. Cortisol inspires the fight-or-flight response when we face danger, but too much cortisol for too long a period can be harmful. Research has found it can alter the immune system, put pressure on the heart and affect the brain. 

A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston found that on days that subjects volunteered, they experienced a lower level of cortisol output compared with non-volunteer days. In other words, volunteering reduced the effect of cortisol on the body. Stressful things certainly still happen to people, but kindness can buffer the effects of stress. 

In 2017, a team from Harvard University followed a large sample of adults age 50 and older over a period of four years to see if volunteering caused any changes in their health. The result: Those who volunteered more than 100 hours per year — about two hours a week — had a “reduced risk of mortality.” Specifically, when comparing the volunteers against those who did not volunteer at all, the volunteers had a 44 percent reduced risk of mortality over the four-year follow-up period. The researchers didn’t prove that the volunteering caused people to live longer but reported the links between living longer and volunteering. It’s possible that other factors were involved. They did report a connection between people feeling they have a purpose in life and volunteering. Those who feel they have a purpose in life tend to live longer.

Volunteer Opportunities

Help your health while helping others. Find out more about volunteering with the AARP Foundation Experience Corps, a program made up of volunteers who are dedicated to helping children become great readers before completing third grade. Plus, discover many more ways to get involved and volunteer with your community.