Helping others makes us feel good. That feeling of making a difference in somebody else’s life — even in a small way — tends to trigger a deeper sense of satisfaction that doesn’t really compare to anything else.
Unfortunately, the realities of life don’t make it so easy to find the time in our busy schedules to volunteer for a cause that’s important to us, help a dear friend move to a new place or offer to take our young nieces/nephews to the park for an afternoon of fun. Sometimes, helping others in ways like these just doesn’t come as much of a priority as other things — like work, errands, yoga class, cleaning and so on.
A person who doesn’t necessarily prioritize generosity above their personal to-do lists isn’t automatically a selfish person. In fact, many people end up helping more people than they probably realize in their everyday lives — without being fully conscious of it.
It’s time to take notice of how being more helpful to friends, relatives, coworkers and even strangers really makes you feel. The more you become aware of this feeling, the more you’ll naturally want to do more to to help others, and the more you’ll be rewarded in physical, mental and emotional health benefits.
1. You may live longer.
In a recent study, an international team of researchers conducted survival analyses of 500 seniors ages 73 to 103. They found that grandparents who helped take care of their grandchildren (not as primary caregivers) lived longer on average compared to grandparents who didn’t help take care of their grandchildren. Half of grandparents who lent a helping hand with grandchildren were still alive a decade after the first survey was conducted, and the same was true for seniors who didn’t have grandchildren but supported and helped their own children.
2. Your brain’s pleasure centers will become activated.
It turns out that giving feels just as good as receiving — if not more. A brain-imaging study revealed that when people donated money to charitable causes, the reward system in the brain becomes engaged in the same way as when people received money. In fact, more parts of the prefrontal cortex become activated when altruistic choices are made over selfish ones.
3. It can help you manage stress.
Research has shown that compassion is linked to lower stress levels. Fifty-nine subjects took a questionnaire that asked them about their levels of compassion and then completed a series of stressful tasks while they were evaluated by an evaluator who either acted in a supportive way, in a positive way or in a neutral way. Results showed that subjects who exhibited higher levels of compassion on the questionnaire ended up interacting more with the supportive evaluators than the other types of evaluators. They also experienced physical benefits like lower blood pressure, lower heart rate and lower cortisol levels compared to subjects who showed lower levels of compassion.
4. It may help lower inflammation.
Medical researchers who examined cellular inflammation in self-reported “happy” people found that lower levels of inflammation was present in only certain types of happy people. Those who felt happy because their lifestyles involved lots of personal pleasures still had higher levels of inflammation. Those who had lifestyles characterized by purpose and meaning — or in other words, a life that involved helping others out — had lower levels of inflammation.
5. It can help you develop a more positive and open mind.
Some studies have linked a state of self-focus to anxiety and depression. Shifting one’s focus to others is an effective way to get out of the constant ”me” perspective where thought patterns can cause problems to seem worse than they really may be. Helping others is essentially a great way to get out of your own mind where you can see and experience things from other points of view.
Now you know that helping others doesn’t just feel good — it’s actually one of the healthiest habits you could incorporate into your life. So start thinking about the random acts of kindness you already make, and think about how you could make them more frequent or expand on them for an even greater effect.