The surprising health benefits of kindness: Feb 17 is National Random Acts of Kindness Day

Acts of kindness and generosity trigger a feel-good chemical response.

ByDr. Leah Croll
February 17, 2023, 6:01 AM

Your brain releases feel-good chemicals whenever you are giving, kind or generous.

Engaging in selfless acts not only serves the people around you, but also gives your mind and body a healthy boost. There's a term for that warm glow you feel when doing something kind for others: the "helper's high."

Kindness is chemical

"The helper's high is a very real phenomenon," said Dr. Neha Chaudhary, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and chief medical officer at BeMe Health.

Performing an act of kindness stimulates the reward center in our brain, leading to the release of dopamine -- the brain's "feel good" chemical messenger. Dopamine is the same neurochemical behind the euphoric rush produced by exercising, sex, and some recreational drugs.

Being kind also triggers the release of serotonin in the brain, which improves mood and promotes feelings of well-being. Kindness even helps us feel friendlier and more connected by increasing levels of oxytocin -- also known as the "love hormone."

"Scientists think that brains are wired to get a helper's high as the human species' way of trying to keep itself alive and thriving through mutual support and less stress for everyone," said Chaudhary.

PHOTO: A stock photo of a person holding a heart.
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The helper's high is good for your long-term health and well-being

Studies have consistently demonstrated links between the helper's high and lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Research also shows that giving and kindness are associated with decreased blood pressure, improved self-esteem, less anxiety and depression, and even a longer life.

"Being kind is not only good for our health day-to-day, it might add years to our lives," said Chaudhary.

The trick is to make kindness a habit

One act of kindness is undoubtedly beneficial, but the physiologic aftereffects are short-lived. To reap the most healthy rewards, repeated acts of kindness are best. Chaudhary says that over time, those small bursts of feel-good chemicals add up, leading to long-lasting health benefits.

"Think about it: if each and every one of us in the world did one small kind thing for someone else every day, the world would be a much happier, healthier place," Chaudhary said. "Not just because you'd inevitably be a recipient of someone else's kindness, but because you'd get that boost of feel-good and stress-busting chemicals each day from being kind toward someone else."

Leah Croll, M.D., is an assistant professor of neurology at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University and an alumnus of the ABC News Medical Unit.