Journalist Marta Zaraska asked a couple of scientists to help her conduct an experiment. She wanted to find out if acts of kindness would affect her on a biological level. The researchers mailed her plastic tubes that she would use to collect her saliva three times a day (morning, noon and night) for seven days.
Ms. Zaraska then mailed her spit back to the Stress, Psychiatry and Immunology Lab at King’s College in London, where the scientists measured her cortisol levels.
Cortisol is part of a chain reaction that contributes to stress. Too much of it can affect our mood, which in turn, can lead to health complications. During four of the saliva collection days, the researchers asked Ms. Zaraska to live as she normally would. But on three other days, they asked her to commit to specific acts of kindness.
The third day of the weeklong experiment was her first conscious kindness day. She explains in her book, Growing Young:
“As I sat down at my desk planning what fun things I could do for others, I felt my spirits lifting…I bought and delivered a small box of chocolates for the nice lady at our local library. At a grocery store, I rushed to open the doors for an elderly woman with a heavy shopping bag. And in the evening I left five-star Google Maps reviews for all my favorite local restaurants and services.”
Not only did she feel happier during her three kindness days, she also recorded cortisol levels that were 16 percent below her baseline level. This meant she was less stressed. Consequently, if she continued such kindness, it might help her live longer.
This experiment involved only one person. But several large, peer-reviewed scientific studies point to the same conclusion. Kindness and generosity make us stronger, happier and they boost human longevity.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia conducted experiments on seniors who suffered from hypertension. For three weeks, they gave them $40 a week. They split the subjects into two groups. One group had to buy something for themselves. The second group had to spend the money on someone else. At the end of the 3 weeks, those who were asked to spend the money on someone else recorded lower blood pressure levels.
Kindness and helping others really can extend your life. Some might argue otherwise, if they point to a 1999 study on the mortality of elderly people who looked after their disabled spouses. But according to Marta Zaraska, one of that study’s original researchers said their conclusion might only apply to the very old and frail.
At least seven large studies say caring for others helps us live longer. One such study published in The National Library of Medicine revealed mortality for caregivers was 18 percent lower than for non-caregivers in similar demographics.
The Berlin Aging Study found that when grandparents spend some time caring for their grandchildren it reduced the grandparent’s mortality by about 37 percent. And it wasn’t because they were healthier when they began. The research controlled for physical health, age, socio-economic status and various characteristics of the children and grandchildren.
Caring for others could also improve your strength. Here’s something you could try with your children before a sports competition. Give them an opportunity to do something kind before they compete. It might help them win.
Kurt Gray, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, led a team of researchers to ask people in a Boston subway station if they wanted to conduct a strength experiment with a five-pound weight. Subjects held the weight away from their bodies with a fully extended arm. The researchers asked them to hold it as long as possible. After testing their muscular endurance, they let the subjects rest. Then they gave them a dollar for their help. But while doing so, they asked the subjects if they wanted to donate that dollar to UNICEF or keep it for themselves. Then they tested their strength again. Those who donated the money were able to hold the weight 15 percent longer than they did before. In contrast, those who kept the money did not improve.
This brings me to personal goals. Many people set career-oriented goals, money-related goals or personal health goals. If we asked, “Why do you want to achieve these goals?” people would provide a variety of reasons. But if we kept asking, “Why do you want that?” most people would likely hone in on the same thing: “I think it will make me happy.”
Yet how many times do we set goals to help other people? Some do it naturally, just like some people find it easy to exercise and eat healthy foods. But many others (me included) often get distracted. That’s why we should focus on the research. Zaraska says how we treat other people and how we socialize have far bigger impacts on our happiness, our health and our longevity than any fitness regime or diet ever could.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas