A lady walk past a Mural of Nelson Mandela. Picture: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency(ANA)
A lady walk past a Mural of Nelson Mandela. Picture: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency(ANA)

Mandela Day: 4 reasons why being selfless is good for your health

By Opinion Time of article published Jul 18, 2021

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By Catherine Black

July 18 is Mandela Day, dedicated to celebrating the extraordinary memory of Nelson Mandela.

In honour of his legacy and his 67 years spent fighting for social justice, the day is all about ordinary South Africans coming together to perform 67 minutes or more of service to others. The significance of this is heightened this year, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and its resulting economic and social devastation.

But besides helping your fellow South Africans in need, did you know that being selfless can also positively affect your own physical and mental wellbeing? Here are four reasons why.

1. You’ll live longer

A 2003 study by the University of Michigan followed a group of 423 older couples for five years, looking at how measures of physical and mental health, personality, health habits and relationship dynamics related to mortality at a later stage.

As it turns out, there was a strong correlation between being generous and living longer. Individuals who said they’d provided tangible forms of help to friends, relatives, and neighbours reduced their risk of dying by about one half, compared with individuals who reported providing no help to others.

This was corroborated by a 2013 study, which found that helping others reduced the association between stress and mortality. Interestingly, and in direct contrast, receiving help had no influence on mortality.

2. It boosts your immune system

A 2015 study on the impact of charitable behaviour – whether it was volunteering, donating or helping someone else – found that even brief periods of supporting or helping others, can reduce daily stress levels.

High stress levels can suppress your immune system, so being generous can actually do the opposite by keeping it strong – isn’t this something we could all have more of these days?

Being sick less often can also have a financial impact: for example, if you’re a member of a medical aid, you may be able to keep your day-to-day medical expenses lower, which will save you money in the long run too.

3. It lowers your risk of high blood pressure

It turns out that volunteering isn’t just metaphorically heart-warming – it has physical heart benefits too. A 2013 research study at Carnegie Mellon University, found a positive link between volunteering and a decreased risk of high blood pressure.

In the study, adults over 50 who volunteered at least four hours per week for a year were found to be 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers. Over recent decades, it’s been found that high blood pressure can result in things like stroke and heart failure, especially in older age groups.

4. It makes you happier

In a 2006 study, Jorge Moll and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health, found that when people donated money to charity, the parts of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust, were activated.

This can result in what’s known as the “helper’s high”, which is the release of endorphins in the brain as a result of altruistic behaviour. There are a whole host of things that endorphins can help with, including alleviating depression, reducing anxiety, and boosting your self- esteem.

In a similar vein, social psychologist Elizabeth Dunn, along with her colleagues from the University of British Columbia, conducted a study asking over 600 Americans to rate their happiness levels and supply details of their earnings and expenditures.

They found that extra income was linked to happiness, but personal spending was not. Only pro-social spending – performing selfless material acts like gifting others or donating to charity – was strongly linked to that person’s overall happiness.

As we now know, being happy has several proven health benefits.

In these turbulent times, we’re learning not taking the simple things for granted, such as being grateful for our health, our loved ones, and our community.

This Mandela Day, by giving back to others, you’ll not only be helping people who really need it, but the gesture will also come back to you too, in the form of better physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

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