These side effects shouldn't be our only motivation, but they don't hurt!
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Doing the right thing really can be it’s own reward — and it can be a huge help to our mental health. A series of studies recently released reveal that being virtuous, helping others, and expressing gratitude produce positive outcomes not only in the lives of those around us, but also in our own lives, too. Granted, we shouldn’t just be kind for our own health benefit, but there is a beauty in the fact that helping others also can have good side affects in our own lives.
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Here’s the evidence that virtue can benefit your mental and physical health, in the form of six science-backed benefits of practicing a virtuous life:
1. Better sleep habits
If you find yourself tossing and turning at night and discover that counting sheep doesn’t seem to solve the problem, living a virtuous and purpose-driven life may be the perfect, drug-free solution for your insomnia. A recent study found that participants who had a purpose for their life experienced fewer sleep disorders and problems and also experienced better quality of rest. The people who participated in the sleep study found that their higher sense of purpose prevented stress and anxiety from plaguing their bedtime habits. Although the study was conducted with senior citizens, the researchers theorize that helping people live a purpose-driven life can reduce the amount of sleep disorders the general population also experiences.
2. Increased general happiness
Previous studies have shown that when you spend money on others, you’re happier than when you spent the same amount of money on yourself. In fact, brain scans reveal that small acts of generosity and virtue cause the brain to produce a”warm glow” as a response to boosted happiness levels. But if your budget is tight, don’t worry. Even small, random acts of virtue and kindness allow your brain to experience that warm glow.
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Back in 2004, another study asked participants to perform five random acts of kindness every week for six weeks. At the end, those who had performed little random acts of kindness reported feeling more happy than the participants in the study who hadn’t done any acts of kindness.
3. A boost in positive emotions
Living a life of gratitude can lead to increased levels of positive emotions. When people participate in activities like thanking others, reflecting on their blessings throughout the day, and writing thank you notes, they experience an increase in their experience of positive emotions.
Not only does gratitude boost your happiness levels, but it also raises your happiness set-point (the “default” level of happiness you feel independent of circumstances), according to psychologist Robert A. Emmons. Other positive emotions that are increased by living virtuously include joy, optimism, pleasure and enthusiasm. Virtue also suppresses feelings of depression, envy and resentment.
4. A lowered rate of depression
Giving your time, talent, and treasures can lower your chances of depression. The more you volunteer your time, the happier your life will be, according to research conducted at Harvard. Their research revealed that there was “a strong relationship between volunteering and health: those who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer.” By giving your time to others and striving for a virtuous life, you’ll be better equipped to ward off feelings of loneliness and depression.
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5. “Helper’s high”
Thanks to endorphins that flood into your brain when you’re practicing good deeds, you’ll experience a natural “helper’s high” when you live virtuously. In fact, some research shows that those who help may actually gain more in terms of mental health than those on the receiving end of their kindness and generosity. Helping others also leaves you with a greater appreciation for what you’ve been blessed with, as well as a sanctification that comes from giving of yourself. Focusing on the needs of others also helps put your own personal struggles into perspective.
6. Increased self-esteem
Living generously can give you a sense of purpose. For instance, volunteering allows you to help out in your own community and make a difference in the lives of your neighbors and friends. It also gives you an empowering opportunity to spend time making an impact in people’s lives. By taking the focus away from yourself, and spending time building up social interaction within your community, you also are able to foster a greater sense of belonging.
Volunteering your time can also give you a new set of skills and experiences. It leaves you with a sense of achievement. By growing out of your comfort zone and giving of yourself to those around you, you cultivate opportunities to face your fears and contribute to society.