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Photo by Adrià Crehuet Cano on Unsplash

The Science Behind Being Kind

Why Serving Others Does Us So Much Good

We’re not talking serving meals, per se, though cooking up a tasty pork tenderloin for my family or bringing a savory sweet potato casserole to a potluck does make me feel good. But part of the joy of cooking is the joy of eating the fruits of one’s labor, so cooking for others when you get to partake as well is kind of an obvious win-win in my book.

We’re talking about going out of one’s way on a regular basis to be helpful to those with whom we live, work, or just share a community. While many seem to be generally empathetic to others and help out when there’s an obvious need, others make it a habit to look for ways they can make others’ lives easier just about every day.

Fred Rogers, of course, was a stellar example of this, and journalist Tom Junod’s writings about the impact Mister Rogers and his acts of “radical kindness” had on his own life has shed significant light on how such a seemingly simply kind person actually went to great lengths to make sure he was of service to others on a continual basis.

Thankfully, lots of people follow his lead in a wide variety of ways. The current Volunteer Stories page of the Network for Good website features three very active volunteers who couldn’t be more different in their approaches to helping others: a 13-year-old in Montana who recites her poetry and sings to residents at a local nursing home and donates proceeds of her poetry books to children’s charities, a 33-year-old substance abuse counselor in California who puts his love for running to inspiring use as a guide for blind runners, and an 84-year-old county elections coordinator in Florida who counsels breast cancer patients after surgery.

Do people do such nice things only because they’ve been taught it’s good to help others, or are they driven by something more that compels them to truly want to help others any way they can?

A quick online search returned a collection of resources that reveals multiple attempts in recent years to determine the impact serving others can have on our lives. I was most intrigued by a piece in Greater Good Magazine from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. In “Can Helping Others Help You Find Meaning in Life?” Elizabeth Hopper, Ph.D. discusses multiple specific studies, including two that together suggest helping others “fulfills basic human needs,” including the need to feel close to others. Throw in added feelings of being competent and just an all-around good person, and the benefits of helping others start to add up.

But wait, there’s more! In a Psychology Today article from last May, “Why Do Volunteers Live Longer?”, David Fryburg, M.D., a specialist on the science of kindness (love!) and a co-founder of the nonprofit Envision Kindness, cites studies that have found volunteerism reduces rates of death not only through the good it does, but through the health benefits it provides to those who volunteer. In addition to building one’s social network, volunteering often lifts one’s mood, leading to lower stress and blood pressure levels, both of which contribute to better health and longer lives.

Perhaps the subconscious messages that compel so many to help others come from deeper than just a general understanding that being nice is a good thing.

Perhaps they’re rooted in a survival instinct that knows helping others truly does help us as well. Whatever it is that drives us to follow the example of those like Fred Rogers who are kind on a regular, deliberate basis, turns out being kind is always a win-win.

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Bylines in Publishers Weekly, the Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard, others. One Sister’s Song (novel). Not Nearly Everything You Need to Know About Writing (ebook).

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