By Nina Radcliff, MD
“Bah humbug!” The epic “A Christmas Tale” masterfully walks us through Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from a selfish miser to someone who learns that “only by giving are you able to receive more than you already have.” Generosity and kindness not only allows us to contribute to the lives of others and find meaning in our own lives,
but it enhances our health and, even, supports living healthier, longer.
Heart and cardiovascular system
There is abundant evidence to show that when people perform charitable acts, they tend to have lower blood pressure. In one study, researchers measured people’s blood pressure before and after performing an act of kindness then before and after spending money on themselves. Findings showed that those who performed a good deed had lower blood pressure after; whereas, the group that spent money on themselves, did not show a reduction in blood pressure.
In another study, adults over the age of 50 years who reported volunteering at roughly four hours per week were 40 percent less likely than non-volunteers to have developed hypertension four years later. While the reasons are not entirely clear, it is believed that altruistic acts decrease stress; increase levels of the hormone oxytocin (drops blood pressure); and in some instances is a catalyst for physical activity (fundraising walks, runs).
Immune System and Inflammation
Kind deeds decrease stress and promote a feeling of well being, both of which boost our immune system. Specifically, scientists have found that the levels of T cells—a special immune system cell—increase in our body. What this boils down to is a better defense against germs and, even, cancer because our immune system fights cancerous growth.
Additionally, altruistic acts have been shown to decrease inflammation, which is the underlying cause of a number of chronic illnesses and can actually provoke cancerous growths.
Acts of kindness can help to suppress physical pain by releasing endorphins—our body’s natural pain reliever. In one study, when chronic-pain sufferers volunteered to lead discussion groups for pain sufferers or make weekly calls to check in on patients, their own pain levels decreased. “When you release endorphins, you just feel good”—Jesse Metcalfe.
Generosity fosters “positive attitudes about aging and life, feeling connected, improvement in feelings of control and life satisfaction.”
These are all associated with increases in “feel good” hormones, in particular serotonin. In fact, today, the most widely prescribed anti-depressants are those that elevate serotonin levels! Longevity
By giving to others, we can live longer. In one review article, researchers gathered information from 40 different studies and found that volunteering could decrease the risk of premature death by 22 percent! This has led some experts to state that, when it comes to increasing our lifespan, giving is as beneficial as quitting smoking
and more beneficial than exercising four times a week, going to church, or taking an aspirin to protect against heart disease.
What are some tips to incorporating giving, kindness, and generosity into our lives?
—Challenge ourselves to perform random acts of kindness on a daily basis: hold the door open for someone; send thank you cards to those in uniforms who risk their lives for us; buy a member of The Armed Forces a cup of coffee; or recognize a co-worker by sending them an email, writing a card, or telling their boss… The list goes on.
—Identify our goals: Determine if we want to make it better within our community, meet people who are different than us, try something new, see a new place, or experience a type of work we may want to do as a full-time job.
—Identify our needs: Determine if we prefer to work with adults,
children, or animals, work independently or with others, or be behind the scenes. Additionally figure out how much time we are willing to commit.
—Identify our skills: Consider incorporating a hobby into our generosity. For example, knitters can make and donate scarves, hats, or other items; gardeners can help a neighbor or school plant flowers or vegetables; animal lovers can help walk an elderly or sick neighbor’s dog or volunteer at an animal hospital or shelter; and those who love children can give their time at a local school or mentoring an after-school program.
—Make it a group activity: Spending time together as a family or with friends or loved ones, with the added benefit of giving, is a win-win situation.
—Start young: Studies have shown that when children volunteer, they are less likely to experience depression, commit suicide, get pregnant or abuse alcohol or drugs. Additionally, they become more socially competent and have higher self-esteem.
As we look through our holiday shopping list, let’s make sure that “giving, generosity, and kindness” are on it. Whether we perform random acts of kindness, donate gifts or money to a charitable cause or person in need, or volunteer our time, it is by giving to others, that we truly receive. Generosity and kindness can connect us with our community, improve our mental and physical health, and become contagious. Let’s embody Mr. Scrooge’s hard-learned lesson: “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” Happy Holidays!
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This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional. Dr. Nina has used all reasonable care in compiling the current information but it may not apply to you and your symptoms. Always consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions.
By Nina Radcliff, MD