Can being kind to others benefit your health and boost your happiness? Liz Alvis finds out
Can being kind to others benefit your health and boost your happiness? Liz Alvis finds out
If you’ve ever had the urge to help an old lady across the road, or help someone pick up their spilt shopping then you’ll know how good it feels to be kind. But according to a new book, not only do acts of kindness feel good, they also benefit our health and wellbeing.
In his book Why Kindness is Good For You (£9.99, Hay House), David R Hamilton writes that “when we help another, or even simply give our time to someone, we become happier, healthier and more fulfilled.”
He continues: “Many people get a high from doing good deeds for others. In regular charitable work it has even been called the ‘helper’s high’. In a large US study of the health, happiness and volunteering habits of 3,296 people 95 per cent reported that they felt good when they helped someone, while 21 per cent actually felt euphoric.”
David Goodfellow, 31, knows all about this. As the founder of the Kindness Offensive he has carried out hundreds of random acts of kindness, from organising a child’s birthday party to distributing 500,000 pancakes to the homeless and hungry on pancake day.
“Kindness makes you feel good,” he says. “And it makes others feel good about you. We can all make the world a better place by doing little things like helping someone with directions or picking up their shopping. And kindness is like a virus – it’s catching. When you start doing good for others, it makes others want to do the same.”
Not only does kindness make us feel good, studies show it can have a positive effect on our health. According to research conducted by CSV’s Make a Difference Day campaign 48 per cent of people who have volunteered for more than two years say that they feel less depressed, whereas up to 63 per cent of people say volunteering helps them feel less stressed.
David R Hamilton explains: “As well as opiates, serotonin and dopamine are released in the brain when we are kind. These help lift our mood and make us feel more positive and optimistic. In the longer term practising kindness retrains neural pathways in the brain so that a formerly depressed person actually gets used to feeling good.”
Over the next few pages we speak to people who make it their business to be kind to others, and find out whether it has had an effect on their health and happiness.
Feeling compassion for others also benefits our health. In fact there is a nerve of compassion in the body called the vagus nerve, says David R Hamilton.
This nerve, which runs from the brainstem through all the major organs of the body, influences the muscle contractions in the stomach which digest food and also helps to keep our heart rate low. When we breathe out, Hamilton explains, the vagus nerve reduces our heart rate, and when we breathe in our heart rate speeds up. This process is known as heart rate variability and measuring it gives us information on the workings of the vagus nerve. “Studies show that high vagus nerve activity, or vagal tone, translates to high compassion and vice versa,” says Hamilton. “Adult studies have shown that having a high vagal tone helps us cope with the stresses and strains of daily life. People with high vagal tone who suffer the loss of a partner, for instance, recover from the depression associated with their grief more quickly.”
Adrian Bentley, 40, is the director of an advertising firm in Manchester. He regularly volunteers for Mustard Tree, a charity dedicated to helping the homeless, poor and marginalised in Manchester
“I’m in a fortunate position in that I love my job, and I’ve got a great family and a nice home. But having spent the last 10 years or so concerned with the trappings of wealth, I’ve started to put my life into perspective. Through volunteer work I’ve come to realise what really matters.
For the past three years I’ve been volunteering with Mustard Tree, a great charity which provides help and support for the homeless and needy in Manchester. I’ve helped out with a bit of everything, from the twice weekly soup kitchen to driving a van around picking up donations of furniture, electrical goods and clothes, then helping sort through the donations in the warehouse. Sometimes all I do is offer a friendly ear to anyone who wants to talk about their problems.
It’s affected me deeply to see the terrible poverty that’s right on our doorstep. Each week about 50 people arrive at the soup kitchen to receive soup, hot drinks and sandwiches and most of them have been living rough on the streets for years. It’s good to know that we are helpingthem at least get a hot meal.
After taking a week’s sabbatical from work to volunteer at Mustard Tree I was asked to become a mentor for their freedom project. This is a 16-week scheme that helps ex-offenders, ex-addicts and the long-term unemployed to get back into work. It’s so rewarding knowing that I’m helping people to get back on their feet again.
I feel so passionate and energised about this kind of work – it’s a great feeling and really puts a spring in my step. I’m very fortunate to be able to make a difference to others. It gives me something to be proud of.”
To find out more about Mustard Tree, visit mustardtree.co.uk.
Denise Woods, 57, from Gloucestershire is a care advice visitor. She raised money for a children’s charity whilst trekking through the Himalayas and is now planning her next charity challenge
“When I first saw an advert for a charity trek through North East India it grabbed me immediately. I’d always wanted to do something like that, and the fact that it would raise money for the children’s charity MedEquip4Kids really appealed. So, despite my fears that I wasn’t fit enough, I signed up and started raising the £2,750 needed to take part.
I put in a lot of the money myself, but I also received sponsorship from friends and family, and I held car boot sales to raise more funds. The kindness and generosity I experienced was really touching. For example, when the organisers of the car boot sales found out that I was raising money for charity they waived the fee. And one little boy who visited my stall gave me all the pennies he had in his pocket as he wanted to help.
When I embarked on the trek I experienced more kindness from the organisers, Global Adventure Challenges, my fellow trekkers and the local guides. Everyone was hugely supportive and encouraging. The guides helped us through the more difficult parts of the trek and really looked after us, carrying our supplies and cooking our food.
The trip itself was an unforgettable experience. We arrived in Dharamsala, the centre of the Tibetan community, and thentrekked for five days, walking for seven or eight hours a day, through the villages of the Himalayas. We finished our trip with a visit to the Taj Mahal. I felt so fortunate to have had such an amazing experience, which also helped to raise money for a great cause. I can’t wait to do more fundraising and I’m already planning my next trek.”
Denise’s trip was organised by Global Adventure Challenges.
David Goodfellow, 31, is an events organiser from London. He is also the founder of the Kindness Offensive, an organisation which performs random acts of kindness
“Doing kind things for others is fun, and it makes you feel great about yourself. Since 2008, as part of the Kindness Offensive, I’ve helped to organise acts of kindness on a small and huge scale.
The Kindness Offensive is something that grew out of humble beginnings. It all started when I was having a conversation with my friends, Benny Crane and James Hunter, about how we could have a positive impact on the world. We decided we wanted to see if we could make a difference to ordinary people’s lives. So we went out and stopped passers-by and asked them what we could do to help them.
We got all kinds of requests from a box of chocolates for one person’s grandmother to a birthday treat for a little girl. We went away and started up ringing up companies to see if they could help. We spoke to a chocolate factory who sent out some chocolates for the grandma, while the Moscow State Circus arranged for the little girl and her friends to train with them and then watch the show. We fulfilled all the requests from that day. It was the best fun we’d ever had, and things snowballed from there.
Our profile went through the roof in October 2008 when we arranged for 25 tonnes of non-perishable foods to be distributed to various soup kitchens and drop-in centres across London. Since then we’ve staged a number of events including the world’s largest random act of kindness, where over a 10-hour period we gave away 35 tonnes of goods to people and charities across London – everything from hampers and toys to gadgets.
At the heart of what we do is the idea of making the world a better place by doing good things for others. Even the smallest act of kindness can make a difference to someone’s life. When people stop sharing and being kind to one another that’s when society breaks down.”
To find out more about the Kindness Offensive, visit thekindnessoffensive.com.
Monica Rose, 72, from North London helps to co-ordinate a network of knitters who knit toys and clothing for disadvantaged and sick children, as part of CSV’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme
“Doing volunteer work gives me a reason to get up in the morning. You have to have a purpose in life, and volunteering keeps me active and on my toes.
After my partner died my daughter-in-law helped me to find something to keep me occupied in my retirement. She found out about CSV’s Retired and Senior Volunteers Programme through the internet. I started helping out in the office and soon I was offered the chance to co-ordinate their knitting network.
There’s about 4,000 knitters in the network, all retired, and we knit baby clothes and blankets which are sent out to orphanages in Moldova and Bulgaria as well as to hospitals around the UK. Another thing we do is knit trauma teddies which the emergency services give to children who have been involved in accidents. We make them uniforms so that they look like firemen teddies. It’s nice to know that they’ll be a comfort to children who have suffered trauma or injury.
A lot of the ladies get rheumatism and arthritis but they battle on because they get a great deal of pleasure from what they do – and I enjoy co- ordinating them. I go to bed thinking about knitting and get up thinking about knitting! I’m always thinking about how much we can do and how we can progress. I care a lot about the children we help and want to do my best for them.
As part of the programme we also go into schools and teach young children how to knit. It’s so rewarding seeing them learning and enjoying themselves. Knowing that I’m helping others makes me feel happy and positive about life.” CSV’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme is currently looking for volunteer managers, especially in York.
If you would be interested in volunteering with RSVP or donating any wool go to csv.org.uk or call 020 7278 6601.
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