When Priya Advani and her daughter were both incapacitated due to injury, Priya had to rely upon the kindness of strangers. With her sprained shoulder, she could not lift her daughter’s wheelchair into and out of the car without assistance, and so had to ask random passerby for help. Over those several weeks, Priya was both touched and amazed by the willingness of strangers to help her, including some who offered without being asked. Priya realized that, much as she felt happy when helping others, those who helped her must feel the same way. She began to wonder about what happens to our bodies, physiologically, when we help others – what processes occur, and what mechanisms are activated?

The University of British Columbia was curious about that as well. They conducted a study in which they asked people with high levels of anxiety to perform kind acts for others at least six times per week. These acts could be something small, like holding a door open for someone, or something large, like donating to charity. After four weeks of these behaviors, the researchers found that participants had undergone a significant increase in positive moods and relationship satisfaction, and a significant decrease in social avoidance.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who’s studied happiness for over 20 years. Lyubomirsky reports that “people who engage in kind acts become happier over time”, and notes that performing these acts once a week leads to the most happiness. The physiological reason for this change is the release of the hormone oxytocin. Dr. David R. Hamilton explains that oxytocin causes the release of nitric oxide, which in turn dilates blood vessels. Thus, oxytocin is known as a “cardioprotective” hormone, because dilated blood vessels result in lower blood pressure. The benefits extend past oxytocin – Stephen Post, president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love and researcher for Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine has found that the more we give of ourselves to others, the more positive effects we see – life satisfaction, self-realization, and physical health are all significantly improved. When people regularly perform altruistic acts, “mortality is delayed, depression is reduced, and well-being and good fortune are increased”.

To learn more about kindness and health, read Priya Advani’s full article on The Huffington Post.

Image Credit: UAB Divulga Science Journal