During the pandemic, and during these troubled times, I’ve found that my best solace has come from helping others.
I find that when I’m actively involved in another person’s needs and how I can help them, it distracts me from fear for my health, worry about the future, or any other troubling or disheartening thoughts.
Perhaps you’ve found this to be true, too. Well, we can all take heart in the fact that science backs this feeling with concrete evidence.
For those of us who already practice kindness to others as a way to take our minds off our own troubles, the proof is in the doing.
But in case you want some scientific evidence to back it up, well, here it is.
Evolution has wired us for kindness
Dr. Tristen Inagaki, a neuroscientist at San Diego State University, is not at all surprised that kindness and altruism have a direct impact on our physical well-being.
“Humans are extremely social, we have better health when we are interconnected, and part of being interconnected is giving,” she says.
Dr. Inagaki has found that the more connectivity there is in a person’s dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), the brain region that connects cognitive control with emotion, the more emotionally rewarding we find being kind to others, and the more likely we are to continue that behavior.
This is true not just for ongoing acts of kindness, like volunteering, but for the “random acts of kindness” that are more likely to happen during a pandemic: checking in on an elderly neighbor, for example, or calling a friend who has been feeling down.
Kindness is good for our health
Research has identified definite health benefits that come with thinking of others and helping them.
Studies show, for instance, that volunteering correlates with a 24 percent lower risk of early death — about the same as eating six or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
When we act kindly, or even when we think about times we’ve been kind, it reduces activity in our amygdala, our brain’s fear center.
Other science-based ways that kindness benefits our health:
- Less pain. Studies have found that donating blood appears to hurt less than having your blood drawn for a test, even when the needle may be twice as thick when donating blood.
- Longer life. Grandparents who regularly babysit their grandchildren have a mortality risk that is up to 37 percent lower than those who don’t provide such childcare. That’s a larger effect than may be achieved from regular exercise, according to one meta-analysis of studies
- Less inflammation. Adolescents who volunteer their time have been found to have lower levels of two markers of inflammation — interleukin 6 and C-reactive protein.
At least one study has shown that high IL-6 levels are also a good predictor of more severe COVID-19 infections — yet another reason to keep inflammation under control.
How to reach out during a pandemic
You may be thinking that your opportunities for reaching out have been severely limited by the pandemic.
There are two things you should know:
- Giving virtually can help your health just as much as giving in person. Sara Konrath, a psychologist and philanthropy researcher at Indiana University, believes that the benefits can be the same if your motivation is to really help other people.
- Numerous studies have proven that donating money to a cause you believe in can improve your health. In one experiment that tested handgrip strength, participants who donated to Unicef could squeeze a hand exerciser for 20 seconds longer than those who had not given away their money.
So, no matter how you do it, the bottom line is that you’ll become stronger and healthier by helping others, and you’re likely to live longer to enjoy the benefits of better health.
Why being kind to others is good for your health — BBCFuture
Individual differences in resting-state connectivity and giving social support: implications for health — Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Caregiving within and beyond the family is associated with lower mortality for the caregiver: A prospective study — Evolution and Human Behavior
Moral Transformation: Good and Evil Turn the Weak Into the Mighty — Social Psychological and Personality Science