Paying It Forward Might Actually Pay Off

Most everyone is raised to follow some variation on the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have done unto you. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Show the same respect you would like to be shown.

The gist of the Golden Rule is simple, elegant, and inspirational: when everyone is nice to each other, the world is a nice place. This philosophy guides our work at Healing Waters, and the work of a growing number of medical professionals like John Gorecki MD and practices who prioritize the well being of the entire patient.

Unfortunately, people don’t always follow the Golden Rule. It’s often easier — the proverbial path of least resistance — to be not nice. We don’t need to rehash all the problems that arise when people treat one another poorly.

There is hope for followers of the Golden Rule, though. An emerging body of research suggests that people who treat one another fairly — in a word, nice people — enjoy neurological benefits that aren’t available to folks who take the easy way out. Here is a look at the brain (and body) science of being nice. After you’ve taken a look, you might just be ready to pay it forward.

Being Nice Appears to Improve Mood

There is solid science behind the often repeated assertion that giving is receiving, that being nice makes you feel good, too.

Acts of kindness release brain chemicals known as endorphins. Endorphins categorically boost mood and improve outlook on a temporary basis. In other words, they make us feel happy. This is why many proponents of paying it forward refer to the feeling folks get when they help others as the “helper’s high.”

Being Nice May Have Cardiovascular Benefits

Acts of kindness also encourage the production of a beneficial hormone called oxytocin. Until relatively recently, it was thought that oxytocin’s primary effects were limited to the brain, where it helps with a variety of processes.

Recent research suggests that oxytocin’s benefits may be more widespread. In particular, the hormone appears to exert a positive influence on the cardiovascular system. Elevated levels of oxytocin correspond to elevated levels of nitric oxide, which helps dilate blood vessels and reduce blood pressure — directly improving cardiovascular health and function. These effects occur almost without regard to age or overall health.

Although nitric oxide isn’t a replacement for pharmaceutical treatments for high blood pressure, it certainly offers a marginal benefit that complements the ameliorative effects of diet, exercise, and stress reduction.

Being Nice May Increase Lifespan

The science of aging is incredibly complicated, but emerging evidence suggests that kindness actually does help people to live longer.

There are a handful of processes at work here. First, the production of oxytocin provides cardiovascular benefits that evidence suggests can lengthen lifespan. Oxytocin also indirectly reduces the incidence of free radicals, oxidative molecules that can damage cells and cause a host of health problems over time. Additionally, oxytocin is involved in the reduction of inflammation, another key to overall health (inflammatory processes are implicated in the development of many cancers, for instance).

There is also a growing body of evidence that suggests being nice stimulates the vagus nerve, which is responsible for regulating heart rate and certain inflammatory processes. Although the mechanism isn’t exactly clear, the vagus nerve appears to respond to acts of kindness by reducing the “inflammatory reflex” and further reducing the incidence of harmful inflammation in the body.

Being Nice May Contribute to Material and Personal Success

You don’t need a medical degree to know that being nice is good for your personal relationships. When you are nice to the people you love, they are nicer to you as well, and your relationships blossom, becoming more fulfilling as a result. This has a host of marginal benefits that add up to better health.

Despite the old “nice guys finish last” trope, there’s also evidence that kindness can improve your professional outcomes as well. Your colleagues and superiors are more likely to trust you — including with potentially career-making projects — when you’re honest, fair, and kind to them. This can indirectly improve your health: all other things being equal, health outcomes rise in proportion with income and socioeconomic status.

Do Unto Others…

Self-interested arguments for paying it forward — selfish cases for altruism, really — can sound surreal. Shouldn’t we be able to divorce ego from this discussion?

This is easier said than done. Altruism might feel good and have tangible benefits for your brain, but humans nevertheless exhibit unmistakable tendencies toward selfishness (or at least confirmed self-interest). If appealing to our selfish side is the most efficient way to get us to do the right thing, so be it.

So next time you do a good deed for a friend or neighbor, bask in the knowledge that you’re doing the moral “right thing”, and that, more likely than not, it’s also the right thing for your brain and your body, too.