While we might all enjoy the warm glow of helping out others or giving up a little of our time for charity, it could be doing us some physical good too.
The mental health benefits of being kind to others has been an important conversation over the last year, but evidence now indicates that it's also good news for your physical health. Studies show, for instance, that volunteering correlates with a 24 percent lower risk of early death - about the same as eating six or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
What’s more, volunteers have a lower risk of high blood glucose, and a lower risk of the inflammation levels connected to heart disease. They also spend 38 percent fewer nights in hospitals than people who shy from involvement in charities.
And these health-boosting impacts of volunteering appear to be found in all corners of the world, from Spain and Egypt to Uganda and Jamaica, according to one study based on the data from the Gallup World Poll.
Of course, it could be that people who are in better health to begin with are simply more likely to be in a position to pick up volunteering. If you are suffering from severe arthritis, for example, the chances are you won’t be keen to sign up to work at a soup kitchen.
“There is research suggesting that people who are in better health are more likely to volunteer, but because scientists are very well aware of that, in our studies we statistically control for that,” says Sara Konrath, a psychologist and philanthropy researcher at Indiana University.
Even when scientists remove the effects of pre-existing health, the impacts of volunteering on wellbeing still remain strong. What’s more, several randomised lab experiments shed light on the biological mechanisms through which helping others can boost our health.
In one such experiment, high school students in Canada were either assigned to tutor elementary school children for two months, or put on a waitlist. Four months later, after the tutoring was well over, the differences between the two groups of teenagers were clearly visible in their blood. Compared to those on the waitlist, high-schoolers who were actively tutoring the younger children had lower levels of cholesterol, as well as lower inflammatory markers such as interleukin 6 in their blood - which apart of being a powerful predictor of cardiovascular health, also plays an important role in viral infections.
There are countless other examples of the positive health effects of both kindness and monetary donations. For instance, grandparents who regularly babysit their grandchildren have a mortality risk that is up to 37 percent lower than those who don’t provide such childcare. That’s a larger effect than may be achieved from regular exercise, according one meta-analysis of studies. This assumes the grandparents are not stepping into the parents’ shoes completely (although, admittedly, caring for grandkids often does involve a lot of physical activity, especially when we are talking about toddlers).
For Tristen Inagaki, neuroscientist at San Diego State University, there is nothing surprising in the fact that kindness and altruism should impact our physical wellbeing. “Humans are extremely social, we have better health when we are interconnected, and part of being interconnected is giving,” she says.
“There is really something about just focusing on others sometimes that’s really good for you,” Inagaki says. With that in mind, surely we could all spare a little time for a moment's kindness in the months ahead.