The Amazing Health Benefits of Being Nice
Plus, 7 random acts of kindness you should commit this week.
With so much suffering in the world, it’s easy to feel helpless. But small acts of generosity can literally change lives, which is why “random acts of kindness”—or doing something nice for someone just because you can—now has its own week (February 12 to 18) and day (February 17).
Our advice: Make a life of it. Turns out, being kind will pay you back in the form of major health benefits.
“Kindness is the active form of compassion,” says James Doty, M.D., director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. “Instead of simply wanting to try to alleviate someone’s suffering, you’re actually doing something.”
This not only leaves a positive mark on the lives of others, but makes you feel great. We mean this literally; it gives you a natural high.
Humans are hardwired for connection, Dr. Doty explains. We require years of nurturing before we can function independently, so our drive to connect is crucial to the survival of our species. If parents couldn’t read their child’s facial expressions or respond to their cries for help, the human race wouldn’t stand a chance.
As a result, being kind rewards the human brain with a release of feel-good hormones like oxytocin. “This gives you a sense of inclusion and calmness,” Dr. Doty says. “Blood pressure goes down, heart rate goes down, and you feel content.”
You don’t have to give someone the coat off your back to show you care. Regardless of where you live, how much you earn, or how much time you have, there are infinite ways to choose kindness. And they all count.
“When you orient yourself toward kindness, you also orient yourself toward your own health and happiness,” says Dr. Doty. “Being of service to others will help give you meaning.”
Where to begin? Here are seven science-backed ways to make somebody’s day.
1. Smile at a Stranger (Bonus Points if She’s Cranky and Stressed)
Smiling is contagious. Research shows that to better understand one another, humans are programmed to mimic the expressions of others. So when you smile at someone, they’ll have a hard time not smiling back. Even if they’re faking it, they’ll still benefit. According to researchers at the University of Kansas, forcing a smile decreases stress and increases positive thoughts.
2. Pick Up the Tab for the Person Behind You
This one works great at Starbucks (not so much at a BMW dealership). For just a few bucks, you’ll make someone’s day and inspire others in line to pay it forward too. That’s because witnessing a kind act elicits an emotion called “elevation,” which increases motivation to help others, according to a study in Psychological Science.
3. Help Out Around Your Neighborhood
In a Washington University study, older adults who donated more time were happier and healthier than those who gave less or none at all. It didn’t matter how many organizations they volunteered with, the type of organization, or the perceived benefit of the work to others—simply being of service was enough to garner health benefits.
In addition, people who have a sense of belonging and feel connected to their communities are more likely to report better physical health than those with less “social capital,” a term researchers use to describe feelings of trust, cooperation, and working toward a greater good.
4. Give a Compliment
How often do you praise someone in your head, but never actually tell them how much you admire their fashion sense, singing ability, or dance moves? Speak up! It’s like handing over a wad of cash, according to a Japanese study. When researchers doled out compliments as rewards for a job well done, they found that it activated the striatum, the region of the brain that lights up when you find money.
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5. Pay Attention to Your Partner
Americans check their smartphones morning, noon, and night—an average of 47 times per day. Your goal for tonight: 0.
All the time we spend with technology is hurting our relationships. In a 2016 survey of 143 married or cohabiting women, the majority admitted that their devices regularly interrupt quality leisure time, mealtimes, conversations, and other interactions with their partners.
In fact, tech interference (those clever researchers call it “technoference”) has been linked to relationship discontent, depression, and general dissatisfaction with life. Not only will you and your partner feel more connected after a night sans screens, but research suggests you’ll sleep better too.
6. Cook Your Family’s Favorite Meal
There’s a reason doing nice things for loved ones makes you feel warm and fuzzy. Humans evolved to live in tribes, says Dr. Doty, which today mean family, friends, or any other group you identify with based on shared values. “You’re much more likely to do nice things for a member of your tribe because that’s one way we show love,” he says. And even though you may not expect anything back, tribe membership has its benefits: receiving love and protection in return.
7. Ask a Coworker About Her Weekend
Whether you work full-time, part-time, or as a volunteer, take time to chat with the people around you.
In a Tel Aviv University study, researchers found that having a friendly, supportive workplace can help you live longer. Study participants who felt they had little or no emotional support in the workplace were 2.4 times as likely to die during the 20 years of study follow-up as those who had strong connections with coworkers.
In other words, a simple hi could save a life. You often think it. Now say it and change the world.