Human beings are wired to do good, says this piece in the BBC by Marta Zaraska, the author of Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100. Adam Grant said of Marta’s book: “If you care about the length and quality of your life but can’t stomach yet another diet or workout routine, this book is for you”. The book and this article both refer to research studies which show demonstrable improvement in our physical health following acts of kindness and charity.
“Studies show, for instance, that volunteering correlates with a 24% lower risk of early death – about the same as eating six or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day, according to some studies. What’s more, volunteers have a lower risk of high blood glucose, and a lower risk of the inflammation levels connected to heart disease. They also spend 38% fewer nights in hospitals than people who shy from involvement in charities.
…several randomised lab experiments shed light on the biological mechanisms through which helping others can boost our health. In one such experiment, high school students in Canada were either assigned to tutor elementary school children for two months, or put on a waitlist. Four months later, after the tutoring was well over, the differences between the two groups of teenagers were clearly visible in their blood. Compared to those on the waitlist, high-schoolers who were actively tutoring the younger children had lower levels of cholesterol, as well as lower inflammatory markers such as interleukin 6 in their blood – which apart of being a powerful predictor of cardiovascular health, also plays an important role in viral infections.
In one study in California, participants who were assigned to conduct simple acts of kindness, such as buying coffee for a stranger, had lower activity of leukocyte genes that are related to inflammation. That’s a good thing, since chronic inflammation has been linked to conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
And if you put people into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, and tell them to act altruistically, you may see changes in how their brains react to pain. In one recent experiment, volunteers had to make various decisions, including whether to donate money, while their hands were subjected to mild electric shocks. The results were clear – the brains of those who made a donation lit up less in response to pain. And the more they considered their actions as helpful, the more pain-resistant they became. Similarly, donating blood appears to hurt less than having your blood drawn for a test, even though in the first scenario the needle may be twice as thick.”

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