Want to Boost Your Health? Help Your Neighbor

Canadian author Charles de Lint said, “Every time you do a good deed, you shine a light a little farther into the dark. The thing is, when you’re gone, that light is going to keep shining on, pushing the shadows back.”

Most of us were taught to treat others well when we were growing up. But then we get busy. Our to-do lists grow longer, and we find ourselves running from one task to the next with our main thoughts focused on getting things done. Somewhere along the way, we forget about doing good deeds, because we have our hands full doing what we need to do.

Today, you may want to take a moment to step back and think again about the idea of doing good deeds for others. Scientists have discovered that not only does it spread goodwill, but it also provides benefits for the do-gooder that can improve health and well-being.

Volunteering Provides Many Health Benefits

Volunteering, in particular, has been linked to many health benefits in studies. According to the Mayo Clinic, volunteers not only make a difference in the lives of others, but they also benefit their own health as well in the following ways:

  • Decrease risk of depression: Research has discovered that volunteering leads to lower rates of depression, particularly in individuals 65 and older.
  • Enjoy a sense of purpose: Volunteering and helping others can give volunteers a renewed sense of purpose as they feel they’re doing things that can make a difference in others’ lives.
  • Reduce stress: Volunteering can help reduce feelings of stress and help people feel more relaxed. In a 2015 study, those who performed more daily acts of kindness were less likely to feel stressed. On days the participants didn’t perform any of these acts of kindness, they reported more feelings of stress and negativity.
  • Increase happiness: People who volunteer report greater health and happiness than those who don’t. Researchers reported in 2008 that volunteering had a positive influence on self-reported happiness.
  • Lower blood pressure: In a 2013 study, scientists found that participants who had volunteered at least 200 hours in the 12 months before baseline were less likely to develop high blood pressure than those who didn’t volunteer.
  • Promote longer life: Could volunteering help you live longer? Some studies suggest it could. In 2012, scientists reported that those who volunteered were at a lower risk for mortality than those who didn’t, particularly those who volunteered more regularly and frequently.

Indeed, volunteering seems to do a body and mind, good. In a UnitedHealth Group survey of more than 3,300 adults, results showed that those who had volunteered in the last 12 months felt mentally and physically better because of it:

  • 94 percent said volunteering helped improve their mood
  • 76 percent said volunteering helped them feel healthier
  • 78 percent said volunteering helped lower their stress levels
  • 96 percent said volunteering helped enrich their sense of purpose in life

About a quarter said volunteering helped them manage a chronic illness

In a 2013 review of 40 studies by researchers at the University of Exeter, results showed a 20 percent reduction in mortality among volunteers compared to non-volunteers.

Positive Acts of Kindness Contribute to Happiness and Well-being

Any altruistic act — one that puts the needs of others above the needs of the self — has been found to have the same health benefits as volunteering.

Helping out a co-worker, for example, easily qualifies as doing a good dead. Research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs showed that people in the workplace who were more likely to help fellow employees were happier than those who weren’t.

“Our findings make a simple but profound point about altruism: helping others makes us happier,” said La Follette professor Donald Moynihan. “Altruism is not a form of martyrdom but operates for many as part of a healthy psychological reward system.”

Research out of the University of California, Riverside, showed similar results. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the university, found that performing positive acts of kindness once a week increased happiness, particularly when those acts were varied. Performing the same action repeatedly caused the effects to diminish gradually.

There is a term for that feeling you get when you help someone else: “helper’s high.” It describes that sense of euphoria accompanied by a surge of energy that people experience after doing something nice or kind. Once that feeling subsides, what’s left is a sense of calming peace, a state of mind that helps keep worries and stress from taking hold.

The effects tend to be contagious. In research out of the University of California, San Diego, scientists found that a single act of kindness often inspired several more similar acts of generosity among the original recipients. The initial do-gooder set off a domino effect of warm and fuzzy feelings.

Performing good deeds also tends to be habit-forming. In a 2012 study, researchers found that doing one good deed feels so good that people tend to want to do more. Just thinking about the times that you helped others is likely to make you want to help again.

Even witnessing an act of kindness helps people feel better. In a study of more than 100 college students, scientists had them watch a couple of videos depicting either heroic, compassionate acts or amusing situations.

Results showed that while watching the compassionate video, participants experienced elevations in heart rate and brain activity that calmed quickly, inspiring people to give, be kind and protect others while the amusing situations caused no such effect.

“I think we have a tendency to absorb what we’re witnessing and that it has an impact on our body and brain,” said study author Sarina Saturn. “We’ve found that showing an inspiring video of people being kind is enough to cause these dramatic events taking place in the body and to allow you to want to pay it forward and be prosocial in return.”

7 Good Deeds to Do This Week

If you’re convinced that doing good might do you some good, you may be wondering how you can get started. We have some ideas for you below.

1. Write a Thank You Note

Often, people do something nice, and we don’t take the time to thank them. You were the recipient of a kind act, but you can return that kindness by acknowledging it fully. Think of someone who has helped you reach a goal recently or someone who got you out of a jam. Send them a note, text or email expressing your gratitude.

2. Let Someone in Front of You in Line

Whether you’re standing in light at the coffee shop or grocery store, or waiting in a line of traffic, step (or hold) back and allow someone else to go first. Not only will it help you enjoy the good feelings of brightening another’s day, but it may also help you slow down and relax.

3. Pick Up the Tab

If you can afford it, consider picking up the tab for a stranger’s coffee, movie ticket, parking ticket or meal. Imagine the surprise on that person’s face when they find out they received something for free.

4. Do a Chore That Your Co-worker or Loved One Usually Does

Mow the lawn, do the laundry, wash the dishes, vacuum the rug — choose a chore that your partner, husband or wife usually does and do it for them.

You can also choose a task your co-worker usually does and do it for them so they can get off early or escape the task. Make coffee, file papers, clean the bathroom — whatever needs to be done, pick one task that usually lands on someone else’s desk, and do it yourself.

This works for your neighbors too. Maybe you can rake the leaves, shovel snow off the sidewalk, pull the weeds from the garden or fix something that’s broken. Save your neighbor from having to do it and experience the good feelings that come when they discover what you’ve done.

5. Thank Your Public Servants

The mail carrier, garbage collectors, firefighters, police officers — they all perform important public services, but they’re rarely thanked. Send them a note, take a dozen donuts or cookies to the station or create a writeup as an editorial, blog post or social media post letting people know how great these professionals are.

6. Step in When It’s Needed

Do you have a friend or family member battling a serious illness? Is someone struggling after losing a job? Did a couple just have a baby? Offer to walk the dog, pick up some groceries or bring over a meal.

Maybe you can babysit, drive someone to a doctor’s appointment or get someone out of the house for a fun evening. Think about what the person must be going through and what you might enjoy if you were in their place, and then do that.

7. Share Your Skills

Many underprivileged communities could benefit from your skills. Perhaps you can volunteer as a doctor or dentist, help mentor struggling students or offer cleanup help after a natural disaster. Check your profession’s national association for ideas. The American Dental Association, for example, offers many local and international volunteering opportunities on its website.