Why helping others is good for your health

Studies have found that helping others can have as much benefit for you as it does them. Find out how simple acts of kindness can improve your mood—and your health

By Lisa Bendall

Why helping others is good for your health

It’s well known that most New Year’s resolutions fail around the same time the snow is fading. According to a recent report from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, that’s often because we set our sights too high when we’re planning changes.

Want to be able to keep your resolution, feel better and make a difference? Think giving – but think small. If you’ve determined you’ll run a charity marathon each month or build an orphanage, you’re a lot more likely to scrap your plans by spring. But what if you add just a few modest good deeds to your regular lifestyle?

The tiniest acts of kindness still have the potential to make a positive change for others. Consider the impact when you admire someone’s new hairstyle, when you lift a senior’s spirits with a phone call, or when you ensure a malnourished child has lunch this week with a mini-sized donation.

Humans evolved as compassionate creatures. Otherwise, how could we raise our young and keep our friends? Today, the tendency to be kind to others is wired into us. "We’re all programmed to have the ability to be empathetic," says Dr. Barry Wiser, a clinical psychologist practising in southwestern Nova Scotia. "So we feel good when we do something for someone else, and our experiences will continue to shape that." Every time you get a grateful smile for holding a door open, you’re more likely to repeat the deed.

York University published a study last year in which participants were asked to behave helpfully or considerately toward another person for just a few minutes a day. After six months, participants reported much greater self-esteem and happiness than those in the control group.

Not only is doing good deeds sure to spike your happy meter, but more and more research proves there are physical benefits, too. Studies have found that people who make a habit of helping others report better health than those who don’t, and seniors who do volunteer work may actually live longer.

Simple acts of kindness make a difference

The best news is that you don’t have to singlehandedly dig a freshwater well in a third-world country to make a difference and reap the benefits. So how about resolving this year to perform easy acts of kindness? Here are six simple suggestions to get you started:

1. Lend a hand. When you see someone struggling with a baby stroller on a set of stairs, or trying to figure out a street map on the sidewalk, take a moment to help out.
2. Give compliments. Who doesn’t love them?
3. Be gracious to strangers. Let someone go ahead of you in the grocery line if they’re only buying a single box of Wheaties compared to your cartload.
4. Go online. E-mail someone a few words of support, make a donation to a worthy cause, or answer a question for someone on your listserv.
5. Say thank you. It makes a difference, and the opportunities are endless: Thank your bus driver, your babysitter, your basketball coach and your barista.
6. Clean up your corner. Pick up a piece of litter, recycle your bottles and set your neighbour’s garbage bin upright.

Like any New Year’s resolution, doing easy good deeds means developing a habit. That doesn’t mean it’s hard. When you’re on your way to work, running errands or heading out for the school pick-up, remind yourself to pay more attention to the people and activities around you. Has a fellow pedestrian dropped a scarf? Is that billboard ad about a charity worth checking out online? If your eyes are open, you’ll notice more opportunities to do some small good.

Once your routine is established, you’ll also experience a stronger sense of purpose, according to the York University research. And that’s another reason you’ll feel great. As Dr. Wiser points out: "People need to have meaning, to feel appreciated." When you know you’ve made a difference, it’s yet another boost to your mood.

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Web exclusive, January 2012

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