Volunteering, altruism, and acts of kindness are an important part of society, allowing us to help the most vulnerable and bring positive change to our communities. Though we think of these acts selfless, these good deeds are accompanied by a physiological reaction that helps boost mood, self-esteem and levels of compassion.
During the coronavirus pandemic, we've seen outstanding acts of altruism, not least by those simply abiding by lockdown rules to keep their communities safe.
The drive to help others has become more urgent, as we've had more time to reflect on our own circumstances and those of others. Shopping for the elderly or those isolating, donating food parcels to homeless shelters or community kitchens, and donating the money we've saved during lockdown to charity are just some of the ways that people are supporting one another.
But devoting time and energy to the needs of others is enriching at every stage of life. For children, learning selflessness is an important part of their development, and helps prepare them for school, work and wider society. Maintaining this attitude over the decades provides long-term benefits for the human mind and body, boosting our sense of self-worth and providing plenty of physical rewards.
Psychology and Aging ran a study which found that over-50s who regularly volunteered their time or resources were less likely to suffer from high blood pressure and heart disease than those who did not, due to consistently low levels of physical and mental stress. Altruistic actions also keep people socially integrated in their communities, which can be great for offsetting loneliness felt by the elderly or those who live alone.
When one person performs acts of kindness and begins to see the very real benefits for their own health, others soon follow, in what has been called a "ripple effect" by Dr Kelli Harding of Colombia University's Irvine Medical Centre. The theory suggests that benefits increase exponentially when large groups are 'working to be more compassionate towards one another', inspiring each other to volunteer and reaping the rewards.
When we perform an act of kindness, we actively stop to think about the positive effect our actions are having on others, and that triggers a release of the hormone oxytocin.
Oxytocin is responsible for developing our sense of trust and intimacy with other people. It also acts as a stress buffer, and helps lower our levels of cortisol to decrease. There's a reason we feel happier and calmer after giving someone a gift, for example: the hormone release reinforces our bond with the other person, and our stress levels respond by diminishing.
Science aside, it doesn't take long to learn that helping others makes us feel better. The sense of purpose and identity it gives us goes hand in hand with its physical benefits. When we're kinder to others, everyone wins.
Wilson, J., and Musick, M. (1999). The Effects of Volunteering on the Volunteer. Law Contemp. Probl. 62, 141–168.
Gil-Lacruz, M., and Saz-Gil, M. (2019). Benefits of Older Volunteering on Wellbeing: An International Comparison. Frontiers in Psychology (10) DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02647