When I lived in Victoria, I used to run the trail around Elk and Beaver Lakes in the mornings before work. As a practice, I would always say “hello” to my fellow outdoor enthusiasts sharing the woods with me in the wee hours of dawn. I felt it odd not to, as many times we were the only people in the woods. Needless to say, many runners did not share my passion for early morning acknowledgement, and I’ll be honest, it upset me to feel overlooked. Was Victoria just too big a city for “hello” or was it my perception? At any rate, it wasn’t until I moved to a smaller city that I would experience the power of “hello” again and feel all was right with the world.
The health benefits of social connection are similar to those we receive from other healthy habits. It only takes a feeling of connection with just one person to increase our immune system function, reduce stress, enhance our sleep, and possibly, add years to our life (so don’t feel bad if you only have four Facebook friends – it’s not quantity but quality that matters). Research is now suggesting we would be healthier through practicing acts of altruism than eating our broccoli. In fact, one study found that it takes approximately five acts of altruism a week to improve our level of happiness significantly. A simple smile and “hello” to a stranger can have amazing results and goes a long way in our quest for a kinder and healthier community.
But wait… there’s more! Not only do you reap the benefits of better health when you give thought to those around you, witnesses to your good deed also benefit. Researchers examining the “helper’s high” suggest that witnesses also experience the same physiological affect as the helper. According to the research, levels of immune boosting chemicals in the saliva of students were elevated, as they viewed a tape of Mother Theresa helping others. If this is the case, just think of the ripple effect one person can make when caught in the act of a thoughtful gesture.
Are you wanting to make a difference but don’t know where to start? Why not begin with one small, good deed a week. I began buying the coffee for the person behind me in the coffee shop line up every Friday morning. It didn’t take too long before I started searching out opportunities to practice my skills in “good deed doing”. Even if I would have rather stared at the concrete or ignored others around me, the high I got from it (not unlike the feeling you get after a good workout) kept me motivated.
So if you are struggling with the exercise thing and eating well seems like a pipe dream, why not add a healthy serving of compassion to your day? By performing a small act of kindness, you may make the day of another person that much brighter and you will live a healthier and happier life (without having to sweat yourself silly on the “stairmonster”). From holding the door and greeting a stranger to practicing patience behind the slow moving tourist (and you know they’re coming), you have many opportunities to help others. In fact, as soon as you step outside to begin your day, you are met with one opportunity after another. All you have to do is notice them.
Kathi Cameron holds a masters degree in Exercise and Health Psychology and is an author and speaker on topics related to health promotion and realistic health behaviour change.