The gift of giving: simple acts of kindness bring healthy meaning to our lives
By Marcie Greenfield Simons
Though we tend to focus on the December holidays and celebrations as the official season of giving in our lives, we actually can find even greater personal satisfaction – including some very real physical and emotional health benefits – by expressing that spirit of generosity throughout the entire year.
As human beings, we constantly long to find meaning in our lives, and one of the ways we do that is by reaching out and giving to others in some way, whether it’s sharing gifts with our families and friends, donating money, goods, our muscle or our time to a worthy cause or randomly helping a neighbor or stranger in need. Even the simplest acts of kindness – shoveling a neighbor’s walkway for the winter, bringing a weekly hot meal to an elderly uncle, volunteering at a homeless shelter – can be deeply meaningful, not only for the people you’re helping, but for your own sense of self-worth.
Such acts of kindness literally trigger a chemical reaction with scientifically proven health benefits. Studies have shown that helping others activates a part of the brain called the mesolimbic pathway, responsible for feelings of personal satisfaction. It’s physiologically similar to a runner’s high. In fact, some refer to it as the “helper’s high.” It catalyzes the production and release of dopamine and endorphins, chemicals which help ease pain and promote happiness. Carrying out acts of kindness, or even just witnessing them, also increases levels of oxytocin, the so-called tranquility hormone, with several known health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, promoting good sleep and reducing cravings for drugs and alcohol. People who make kindness a habit also have lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. Intentionally helping others can lower levels of anxiety in those who normally avoid social situations.
For those health benefits to take effect, however, the act of giving or kindness must meet three criteria. First and second, it must be authentic and compassionate. If it’s something you’re doing to get credit or impress someone, or if you’re doing it out of some sort of half-hearted obligation, then it’s not completely genuine and it won’t bring you the satisfaction a true act of kindness will. Third, it must be something that’s consistent and repeated. Bringing a plate of a holiday cookies to the lonely widow next door is wonderful gesture in itself, but to extend that year-round – perhaps bringing over a nice lunch or dinner once a week or even a couple of times a month– would brighten her life and your own sense of meaning and satisfaction.
Some of the wisest words ever spoken about the healthy power of kindness and giving came from the late Fred Rogers, host of the long-time PBS children’s program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He believed strongly that the need to love and be loved was universal, and he sought to cultivate that message through every program.
“You know, I think everybody longs to be loved, and longs to know that he or she is lovable,” he once said. “And consequently, the greatest thing we can do is to help somebody know they’re loved and capable of loving.” Fred used to carry a piece of paper in his pocket that said, “You can't help but love a person once you know his story. And everyone has a story.”
It’s that level of human understanding – taking the time to hear, learn about and appreciate the stories of others – that informs and motivates acts of kindness, not only during the holiday season, but always. We are all blessed with the ability to bring betterness into this world, and when we do, we benefit from it as well, both as individuals and as citizens of the world.
Marcie Greenfield Simons is a Chaplain at Berkshire Medical Center.