The Benefits of Being Nice

Reader's Digest Canada|July/August 2020

The Benefits of Being Nice
Acts of kindness can boost our health, lower our stress and help us live longer
Marta Zaraska
HUMANS LIKE TO pretend we are unique in truly caring for others. In reality, altruism and helping behaviours are far from rare in the animal kingdom. Just Google “animals saving other animals” and your screen will be flooded with videos of hippos rescuing drowning baby zebras and baboons chasing off leopards to save antelopes. If that’s not enough to convince you, rest assured that proper scientific studies also find genuine altruism in many animal species, from capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees to ravens and rooks.

Yet there are some evolutionary reasons why human altruism should differ from that of other species. One popular hypothesis states that caring for others developed from parenting behaviours. Since human babies are born particularly vulnerable (thank you, big brains), they require unusually high amounts of care—just ask any under-slept new parent. To ensure that mothers and fathers won’t abandon these needy creatures, nature equipped us with two systems: one reward-inducing and the other stress-reducing.

Snug in the middle of our brain is a grape-sized area known as the insula, which is activated by such things as helping others, donating money to charity and, yes, caring for kids. Additional reward-related brain areas, the septal area and ventral striatum—the very same ones that light up when you find a winning scratch-and-win card— also buzz with activity when you take care of others. In other words, parenthood and other forms of caregiving are wired to the brain’s reward system.

Evolution also linked caring with mechanisms that dampen stress. For elderly human volunteers, taking care of infants reduces cortisol levels in the saliva (which could translate into such health benefits as a reduced risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis).

The upshot is good news. Whether we’re parents or not, everyday kindness can ultimately lower our stress, boost our health and help us live longer.

ONE WAY CAREGIVING may inhibit stress is through dampening the activity of the amygdala, the brain’s centre for emotions, emotional behaviour and motivation, and disrupting its connections with the fight-or-flight response. When adults hear the whimpers of infants, the response of the amygdala is tempered, allowing them to care for little ones without burning out.

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July/August 2020