Looking to get rid of a backache? Carry home someone’s groceries!
“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness,” states the Dalai Lama. In 12-step programs which originated with Alcoholics Anonymous, “the constant thought of others” is prescribed as the solution to one’s problems. In the Christian Bible are a wealth of quotes espousing a life of loving service. Many volunteer opportunities and service jobs such as teaching are deemed “rewarding.” Now science actually supports these religious, spiritual and secular views, proving that helping others not only helps us to feel better, but may even save our lives!
It was 1934 and the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, had once again been released from a mental hospital due to his compulsive drinking and the destructive behavior that it caused. Having tried repeatedly to not drink and undergone numerous hospitalizations Bill Wilson couldn’t stop and was hopelessly baffled. Then, something miraculous happened; he was introduced to Dr. Robert Smith, a man who was also unable to quit drinking for any significant period and, like Bill, had suffered dire consequences. The two men talked in Dr. Smith’s living room over coffee and cigarettes, discussing the ramifications of their drinking with complete honesty. At the end of the afternoon both realized something amazing and unexpected; during that entire time neither had craved or even thought about a drink. Hence, was born one of the primary tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous: helping others as a way to help oneself.
Most of us are not strangers to this notion of doing for others to receive inherent rewards. Helping others makes us feel good about ourselves as we see our own actions directly and positively influencing another living being. Helping others also helps us to forget our own problems and to recognize the difficulties others face, making us feel less alone. However, science has found that acts of loving kindness do not just reap psychological benefits, but may actually help to heal and prevent mental illness such as depression and even physical ailments as severe as heart disease and autoimmune disorders!
According to medical research, humane acts can help “regulate high blood pressure, keep the headaches away, improve circulation and ease back pain. It even deals with somewhat more serious diseases such as lupus, arthritis and coronary heart disease, to name a few,” writes Dr. Peter Wang.
How, one may wonder, could carrying home someone’s groceries, tutoring a child or serving a meal to a homeless person possibly result in curing something as serious as coronary artery disease?
The answer lies in the feel-good chemicals which are released during sex, exercise and when listening to or seeing something aesthetically pleasing. Those chemicals are the neurotransmitters called endorphins.
“When we open our hearts and reach out to others in kindness, our brain releases endorphins—the morphine-like chemicals that produce the feelings of exhilaration known as the “runner’s high,” writes Clinical Psychologist Dr. Janae Weinhold.
Well, then, why not just make a lot of trips to the gym and to the bedroom, you might ask?
First of all, helping others has actually been found to go one stop beyond those activities in its physiological benefits. In addition to producing endorphins, acts of kindness, according to researcher Paul Persall, also induce the release of “Substance P,” a neurotransmitter chemical that blocks pain.
There are also the other psychological benefits of forgetting one’s troubles, interacting with others and recognizing that one is not alone in one’s difficulties. However, the rewards of doing for others don’t end there. Experiments at the Institute of Heart Math actually showed that the positive feelings generated by humane acts can cause our DNA to change its shape. In other words, we can actually change our genes!
And as if all of that wasn’t enough, there has actually been research undertaken in the field of New Age spirituality. Gregg Braden, a practitioner of scientific spirituality, states that we can essentially change the composition of the universe with our thoughts and actions. Therefore, positive and kind thoughts and actions lead to more positive energy and actions in our world.
So, next time you experience a bout of depression, a splitting headache or a flare-up of arthritis, go find a place to volunteer. After all, everyone benefits, even your genes!