To Live Longer, Feel Happier and Be Less Stressed, Try Performing Acts of Kindness

By giving to others, you will not only live longer, but you may also end up spending the extra years in a slightly better, kinder world.

Benefits of performing acts of kindnessIllustration: Taryn Gee

The benefits of being nice

Humans like to pretend we are unique in truly caring for others. In reality, altruism and helping behaviours are far from rare in the animal kingdom. Just Google “animals saving other animals” and your screen will be flooded with videos of hippos rescuing drowning baby zebras and baboons chasing off leopards to save antelopes. If that’s not enough to convince you, rest assured that proper scientific studies also find genuine altruism in many animal species, from capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees to ravens and rooks.

Yet there are some evolutionary reasons why human altruism should differ from that of other species. One popular hypothesis states that caring for others developed from parenting behaviours. Since human babies are born particularly vulnerable (thank you, big brains), they require unusually high amounts of care—just ask any new parent who is lacking good sleep. To ensure that mothers and fathers won’t abandon these needy creatures, nature equipped us with two systems: one reward-inducing and the other stress-reducing.

Snug in the middle of our brain is a grape-sized area known as the insula, which is activated by such things as helping others, donating money to charity and, yes, caring for kids. Additional reward-related brain areas, the septal area and ventral striatum—the very same ones that light up when you find a winning scratch-and-win card—also buzz with activity when you take care of others. In other words, parenthood and other forms of caregiving are wired to the brain’s reward system.

Evolution also linked caring with mechanisms that ease stress. For elderly human volunteers, taking care of infants reduces cortisol levels in the saliva (which could translate into such health benefits as a reduced risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis).

The upshot is good news. Whether we’re parents or not, everyday kindness can ultimately lower our stress, boost our health and help us live longer.

One way caregiving may inhibit stress is through dampening the activity of the amygdala, the brain’s centre for emotions, emotional behaviour and motivation, and disrupting its connections with the fight-or-flight response. When adults hear the whimpers of infants, the response of the amygdala is tempered, allowing them to care for little ones without burning out.

Down the road, this altruism-related turning down of the stress response has an impact on our immune systems and inflammation. People who frequently volunteer have lower levels of C-reactive protein—a marker of inflammation. If your blood is teeming with C-reactive protein, that’s a bad sign, suggesting you may be headed toward such health problems as cardiovascular disease.

Experiments confirm that it’s the act of volunteering, not some other characteristic of people who tend to sign up for unpaid work, that keeps inflammation at bay. At one high school in Western Canada, students were divided into two groups. The first group was to volunteer, helping kids in after-school programs. The second was wait-listed. When blood samples were compared, a clear image emerged: people who volunteered had significantly lower levels of an inflammatory marker called interleukin 6. Elevated levels of interleukin 6 can mean double the risk of dying within the next five years.

If you don’t have the ability to volunteer in person, monetary donations, informal caregiving and even simple, everyday acts of kindness work well for our health, too.

Research by Lara Aknin, an associate professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, shows that although we believe we gain the most happiness from buying stuff for ourselves, in reality we end up better off if we lavish money on others.

Imagine you’ve found $20 on a deserted sidewalk. What would you do with it? In one experiment, Aknin and her colleagues handed volunteers either a $5 bill or a $20 bill, then instructed half of the participants to blow the windfall on themselves and the other half to spend the gift on someone else. Once the money had been spent and everyone’s moods had been carefully evaluated, Aknin discovered that those who used the money to please others ended up significantly happier.

A pleasant mood is not the only benefit we may derive from treating others. The gains can be as varied as better sleep, sharper hearing, stronger muscles and lower blood pressure. When seniors suffering from hypertension were handed $40 per week for three consecutive weeks to either spend on themselves or on someone else, those who donated saw their blood pressure drop as much as if they had picked up a healthier lifestyle or started new medication.

You can also boost your health by caring for your family. It may seem counterintuitive that, say, caring for an aging parent could make us physically better off, as caregiving often involves poor sleep, labour and psychological strain. However, several studies have shown that many caregivers actually live longer. In one such analysis, a study published in 2013 in the American Journal of Epidemiology, scientists carefully compared over 3,500 family caregivers with more than 3,500 people who didn’t nurse anyone and discovered that the former had 18 per cent lower mortality rates.

If you are a grandparent, and not too frail, family caregiving can take the form of babysitting your grandkids. Offering such help occasionally can lower mortality rates by as much as 37 per cent—more than regular exercise.

In January 2019 I decided to test whether I could boost my health through everyday acts of kindness, which I’d perform in my hometown—a small village in northwestern France. I contacted two scientists at King’s College London who study cortisol response—Carmine Pariante, a professor of biological psychiatry, and Naghmeh Nikkheslat, a post-doctoral researcher—and they generously agreed to help me out. We discussed the details of my experiment, and soon a package arrived in my mailbox. Inside were printouts to be filled out on each day and a stash of small plastic tubes called Salivettes. For seven days, I was to collect my saliva in the tubes, morning, noon and evening, and then ship them back to Pariante and Nikkheslat, who would measure my cortisol levels. On four of the saliva-collection days, I’d follow my regular routine. The remaining three would be my “intervention days,” where I’d add small acts of kindness.

I woke up on day 1 and reached for the Salivette prepared on my night table. I unscrewed the blue cap and slid a roll-shaped swab into my mouth. I repeated this three times a day throughout the week, dutifully noting my moods and everything that happened in a journal.

On the third day, it was time for my first kindness intervention. As I sat down at my desk planning fun things I could do for others, I felt my spirits lifting. The implementation phase was even more fun. I left a smiley-face sticky note on my neighbours’ car. I bought and delivered a small box of chocolates for the nice lady at our local library. At a grocery store, I opened the doors for an elderly woman. I didn’t know whether my cortisol response was healthier, but I certainly felt happier.

Over the next two days, I continued with random kindness. I bought sandwiches for a homeless family. I donated books. I baked cookies for my husband to share with his colleagues. And I felt really good.

When the experiment ended, I packaged up the Salivettes and mailed them back to London. About two weeks later, I received news from Nikkheslat: they had the results.

While on my regular days I produced on average 64 nmol/L of cortisol, on my acts of kindness days I produced just a little under 54 nmol/L, suggesting lower levels of stress. Pariante and Nikkheslat found that on my first day of random kindness, I woke up with quite elevated cortisol levels, which then dropped significantly by noon—by which time I’d already started my acts of kindness. The next two intervention days, I woke up with considerably lower cortisol levels.

Of course, the health-boosting effects don’t mean you can just skip your hypertension medications. In a perfect scenario, you’d still eat well, do 30 minutes of physical activity a day, and engage in kindness. But sometimes it’s easier to skip the gym and instead just do a few nice things for people.

For my part, I look for more opportunities to perform kind acts in everyday life. I’m not always as deliberate as I was during my experiment, but I’m trying. I certainly let more cars pull in ahead of me when I’m driving.

Unlike other healthy habits, philanthropy is contagious. By giving to others, you will not only live longer, but you may also end up spending the extra years in a slightly better, kinder world.

Next, check out these tips that will help you live to 100!

Excerpted from Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100 by Marta Zaraska. Copyright © 2020 Marta Zaraska. Published by Appetite by Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada