Nice guys finish last, right? Maybe not. Research shows that people who routinely engage in acts of kindness and generosity tend to enjoy a better mood and self-esteem.
In other words, they feel better about themselves, regardless of where they run in the rat race.
But these acts of kindness have also been shown to lower blood pressure and levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. In other words, being a giver, not a taker, is good for your health.
A surprising new study from Ohio State University has demonstrated lower levels of chronic inflammation in people who make themselves available to provide support to friends and family.
It appears these are mutual relationships, where both parties feel they can lean on one another, and where the giving is balanced (as opposed to one person burning themselves out). The effect appears to hold particularly well for women.
“Positive relationships may be associated with lower inflammation only for those who believe they can give more support in those relationships,” said Tao Jiang, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State.
“It may be that when people believe they can give more support to friends and family, these relationships are especially rewarding and stress-relieving, which reduces inflammation.”
The results show that the healing power of good relationships comes from the fact that the support is mutual.
The study used data from 1054 participants in the National Survey of Midlife Development in the US. These were all healthy adults between 34 and 84 years old.
Participants completed a questionnaire that measured their ‘social integration’. They were asked if they were married or living with a partner, how often they contacted family and friends, and how often they attended social groups or activities.
Participants also completed a measure of how much they believed they could rely on their family, friends or spouse if they needed help.
The key to this research is the fact that the dataset is one of the few that also asked participants to rate how much they were available to support family, friends and spouse, Mr Jiang said.
About two years later, these participants returned for blood tests, which included a test for interleukin-6 (IL-6), a marker of systemic inflammation in the body.
“Higher levels of IL-6 are associated with increased risk for many of the diseases that are the top killers of Americans, including cardiovascular disease and cancer,” said Dr Baldwin Way, associate professor and co-author.
“The findings showing the importance of being available to help others held true even after taking into account a broad range of other factors that may affect inflammation, from age, income and education to health behaviours, medication use and diagnosed medical conditions.”