First of all, the kind of behavior I’m referring to isn’t just any kind that happens to benefit someone else; it’s called altruism. Altruistic behavior is characterized by a person’s intent to perform an act designed to benefit someone or something other than him or her self. You can also call it selfless service, volunteerism, or karma yoga if you like.
Performing random (or planned) acts of kindness is good for or a variety of reasons, some of them perhaps surprising.
Broadly speaking, selfless service increases quality of life across the board. Sociologists found that volunteer work enhances six aspects of personal wellbeing: happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, sense of control over life, physical health and depression.
Here’s a review of 20 years of scientific research showing that altruistic behavior produces health benefits (click).
Basically, our brains are designed and built to enjoy helping others. Neuroscientists found an old (by evolutionary standards) pleasure center in the brain that makes us feel physically good to do something unexpected and kind for someone else. In fact, it's the same part of the brain activated by food and sex!
Selfless service also satisfies our craving for positive social interaction. However great or small, the recognition we receive upon carrying out an act of kindness increases our feeling of connectedness. The UN surveyed the effects of volunteerism on global society and concluded, “Our own well-being is intrinsically linked to what we contribute to the lives of others.” (You should read Chapter 8 of the report.)
Altruism is how we act upon the intuition that somehow we’re all part of the same team. Interestingly, giving aid can be even more beneficial than receiving it. In this way, life was designed to be a win-win situation.
People who spend some of their time selflessly giving to others are more likely to report being happy.
Try the giving experiment for yourself. Maybe start small. Put a few quarters in someone’s expired parking meter or let someone go in front of you when both of your cars are tied at stop signs. Even a smile and a sweet thought to a passing stranger counts, “I hope you feel loved today.” Or just go big. Donate your hair to Locks of Love or offer to babysit for a veteran so he or she can have a fun night out. Here are some other ideas from RandomActsofKindness.org.
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt
Body – Mind – Spirit