Apart from the crispiness of the unforgiving harmattan weather, the scanty decorations that attempt to beautify our not-so-beautiful streets and the gridlock traffic that keeps us in town all day, one more phenomenon is familiar to us during Christmas: giving and receiving. This feature of this, and every other festive season, is universal and highly anticipated.
But apart from the desirable social benefits of giving and receiving, are there any other benefits? Medical benefits?
In the broader context of giving and receiving (not necessarily tangle gifts) there are many benefits to be derived. Receiving is obviously desirable, and research has shown that when individuals are recipients of kind acts, they feel more comfortable and less stressed. The greater benefit though, seems to come from giving- specifically from altruistic acts.
Everyone who does a good deed, without the expectation of a reward, experiences a deep sense of joy and satisfaction. This emotional high comes from the release of a mix of body chemicals, including oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. These hormones are known to reduce stress and make us more relaxed. Repeated acts of kindness thus helps us cope better with the stresses of life, ensuring high mental well-being that prevents clinical depression and other mental health-related ailments.
Oxytocin, produced in significant quantities during the performance of a kind act, has been shown to induce certain brain and blood chemicals that decrease the blood pressure and heart rate, both of which provide some protection against heart disease. Data from the United States Census Bureau shows that the incidence of heart-related illnesses is lower in states with greater volunteer rates. Doing good deeds is therefore another act- like exercise and healthy eating- that protects us from heart disease. Even among those who have suffered heart disease, those who regularly volunteer experience fewer complications.
Doing good deeds is also known to help with the control of pain. This results from both psychological and biochemical factors: when one performs an act of kindness, the focus is shifted from the self to the recipient of the good act, resulting in a distraction from any prevailing pain. In tandem with this psychological effect, there is also release of high levels of endorphins when one performs a good deed; these chemicals act like morphine to relieve any physical pain.
When an individual performs an act of kindness, there is also a boost of the immune system, through an increase in the levels of circulating antibodies. These antibodies are agents that attack microorganisms that invade the body, thus preventing us from contracting infections. This, in combination with the relief from stress, makes kindness an efficacious prophylactic for colds, sore throats, etc.
Doing good deeds is also known to increase longevity. This effect may be a culmination of all the physical and mental benefits of altruism or it may be an independent outcome altogether.
In a recent interview with WebMD, Stephen G. Post, Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University and President of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, reported that older adults who volunteered were living longer than non-volunteers. He stated that in one large study, a 44% reduction in early death was found among those who volunteered a lot– a greater effect than exercising four times a week. Another study published by the Corporation for National and Community Service in the USA titled “The Health Benefits of Volunteering” showed among other things that states with higher volunteer rates have overall better health, and volunteers generally lived longer than non-volunteers.
Apart from the many demographic studies that have supported the claim that volunteering, and doing good in general, increases longevity, there is biological evidence to buttress it: The telomere, which forms the end caps of our chromosomes, is a good determinant of longevity. As the telomere shortens, the individual ages, and the faster the rate of shortening, the faster the aging occurs. It has been found that individuals who perform altruistic acts frequently generally have longer telomeres compared to the general population of like age.
But these benefits do not come from just any kind of good deed. The highest benefits come from altruistic acts: acts of goodwill for which absolutely no reward is expected. Really and truly, it is the thought that counts. Signing a fat check for an orphanage just to satisfy your company’s corporate social responsibility may give you some tax breaks, but no medical benefits.
Hold the door open for a stranger, say a kind word to your subordinate, create a safe environment for the patient in your trust, help a child cross the street, volunteer your time at a charity event: this is where the benefits are derived. Kindness is one remedy you do not need a prescription for, and for which there is nothing like overdose. Doing good deeds should become second nature to us.
Interestingly, a good deed has a way of perpetuating itself, allowing us to reap more and more of the benefits. When one performs a good deed, the elation and emotional satisfaction experienced causes the production of dopamine, a hormone which reinforces behavior and causes a craving to do more. Thus the more good you do, the more good you will do. This helps us make a habit of doing good deeds, helping the world around us and helping ourselves in the process.
At Christmas, we typically feast, make merry and share gifts with our family and friends. That is great for the rejuvenation and strengthening of already existing social ties. But let’s remember the less fortunate also, those who cannot respond in similar kind, who are likely in greatest need. Give without expecting anything back, and you will receive more than you can expect.
Go ahead and do some good- real good- this Christmas, and try to make a habit of it: you will be adding years to your life and life to your years.
By: K.T. Nimako (MB ChB)
Dr. Kojo Nimako is a private medical practitioner with an interest in public health, and Citi FM’s Chief Medical Correspondent. He is also the editor of healthbloggh.com and the Executive Director of Helping Hand Medical Outreach, an NGO focused on health education.
Follow on Twitter: @KTNimako
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