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The Happiness Map: Giving Back

Star Christmas Lights Hanging from an EaveThe holidays are the perfect time for charitable acts. And this year, in particular, it feels like exactly the right thing to do.

Whether it’s volunteering, helping, or donating–it just feels good, right? Well, I’d like to draw your attention to a little side benefit of altruism: research is showing that people who help others actually become happier, healthier, and live longer than people who don’t.

Indulge me as I share a personal story.

My husband was in the grocery store a few months ago with both our boys. He did a decent shop; the bill came to well over $100…and then realized he’d left his wallet at home. Ugh.

I mean, if you’ve ever tried to go grocery shopping with two young boys in tow, you know what a huge feat it was that he even made it to the checkout in one piece, without destroying half the canned-goods section or selling one of our children in the process. As he struggled at the counter, searching in vain for his wallet, and then realized he’d have to leave all his hard-won, tidily bagged groceries at the store…the person behind him in line quietly paid for his bill. The whole thing. Without making a big fanfare. When my husband realized what was happening, he was blown over with gratitude, and begged the woman for her contact info so he could send her the payment. But she wouldn’t have it.

Random acts of kindness like that do exist. My husband spent the rest of the day with a completely new feeling about his fellow human beings.

But you know who probably felt better? The woman who’d paid for some poor frazzled dad’s groceries.

Research shows that being altruistic conveys mental health benefits: it reduces depression, it improves happiness and well-being. In fact, giving help is more significantly associated with better mental health than was receiving help.

But volunteering appears to improve physical health and longevity, too. Several studies have demonstrated this. In one study of more than 2000 people, conducted over the course of a decade, the people who volunteered had lower mortality rates, and if they were “high volunteers”–meaning two or more organizations–their mortality rate was reduced by 44% over non-volunteers. This was after controlling for other factors like mobility, chronic conditions, social support. This was a bigger effect than exercising  4 times weekly (which reduced mortality by 30%) and only slightly smaller than the reduction associated with not smoking—49%.

If you’ve ever volunteered or helped a charity, I think you know what I’m talking about when I use the term “helper’s high”. And now there’s research to show that this is a real thing.

And the research is nice. But, truth be told, this is something people have long known.

ebenezer-scrooge

Charles Dickens knew about this in 1843 when he created the character Ebenezer Scrooge. The ultimate reformed curmudgeon who changed his ways…and once he started helping people less fortunate than himself, he became giddy with joy, jumping and feeling younger and more vibrant.

But we can go even further back to see the wisdom of altruism:

If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.

If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.

If you want happiness for a month, get married.

If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.

If you want happiness for a lifetime…help someone else

-Chinese Proverb

There are a plethora of ways to give back this season: what’s your favorite?

Happy Holidays, everyone.

xox

How To Live Longer (3 Easy Ways)

Research has been popping up lately in my news reader and inbox about things that add (or subtract) years to our lives. And some of it is fascinating. But let’s face it: a lot of the health advice out there requires a pretty serious level of commitment, energy, and effort. In contrast to all that, I plucked out a few lifestyle changes that would, I think, be pretty painless. And definitely worth the major gain of a longer life.

Go for a (short) walk. Add a mere 15 minutes of exercise to your day, every day, and add 3 years to your life. So says a study published in The Lancet last week. 15 minutes is so do-able, such a minimum amount, it’s hard to believe that there’s anybody who doesn’t have the time to squeeze this in.

Put down the remote already. A study last week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that, once you’re over the age of 25, every hour of TV you watch reduces your life expectancy by 22 minutes. Personally, I’m not hugely surprised by this one. Not only do I swear I can feel my neurons dying while I’m watching TV, I know that by sitting there I’m not really doing anything useful for my health or my body. Plus, unhealthy and excessive snacks tend to go hand in hand with TV viewing, don’t they? Some people may argue the “winding down” and “de-stressing” benefit of TV, that it’s how they relax, and I say sure. Fair enough. But not for several hours every evening. Maybe switch up some of that time for something else that’s equally relaxing: Have a bath. Read a great book. Go for a walk (see previous point).

Shop, shop, shop. A few months ago, this study in The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health showed that people over 65 who shopped every day had a 27% lower risk of death than the least frequent shoppers. Lots of theories on why this one is beneficial–the socializing, the exercise, taking care of needs like getting prescription medication and buying fresh, healthy food. Whatever the reason, I like it. It feels very harken-back-to-a-simpler-time when people would shop every day in their little village for their bread and veggies and chat with the neighbors.

If you’re looking for other easy health boosts, check out:

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Dr. Kim Foster, MD. (photo credit: Tamea Burd Photography)

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