Acts Of Kindness Can Support Immune Function
There’s so many good reasons to be kind. Here’s another one.
When big things feel out of control, like right now, in the middle of another national lockdown, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and stress and worry can soon start to spiral.
During times like this, it can be helpful to gently shift your focus to the things that you can control and the positive action you can take to change things for the better. No matter how seemingly small, insignificant or temporary these actions may seem, over time, these little increments can really add up. And in fact, research has shown that taking positive action during times of stress, not only helps you to cope better in the moment, it can actually help to support your ongoing immune health too. A real win-win given the current situation.
There’s lots of different types of positive action you can take to help cope with stress and that includes prosocial behaviour, defined as “voluntary actions that are intended to help or benefit another individual or group of individuals.” And in fact, a life-affirming study has actually measured how positive action in the form of acts of kindness towards others has benefits that ripple far beyond the act of kindness itself, and can actually improve immune health.
In this randomised controlled experiment, published in Psychoneuroendocrinology in July 2017, researchers aimed to identify possible causal mechanisms underlying the association between prosocial behaviour and longevity. A total of 159 adults were randomly assigned for 4 weeks to engage in prosocial behaviour directed towards specific others, prosocial behaviour directed towards the world in general, self-focused kindness or a neutral self-control task. The researchers then examined changes in a leukocyte gene expression profile known as the Conserved Transcriptional Response to Adversity (CTRA). In simple terms, this means they were looking at whether engaging in prosocial behaviour directed towards specific other people can influence the expression of immuno-protective genes. And results showed exactly that. In the group engaged in prosocial behaviour directed towards specific other people, the researchers noted direct and beneficial impacts on the expression of immuno-protective genes. They did not observe any significant changes in immuno-protective gene expression in any of the other 3 groups. These findings are fascinating.
One of the key messages I regularly share with my clients is “never underestimate the potential and widespread impact of small changes; the ripple effects often spread further than we could ever imagine”. And I particularly love this study because it is a real-life demonstration of that; change one thing and the wider effects are always surprising.
You never know the impact on another person’s life when you direct some kindness towards them, it’s probably the most important thing we can all do right now, and your immune system will be grateful too.
“In a world where you can be anything, choose kind.”
Nelson-Coffey SK, Fritz MM et al. Kindness in the blood: A randomised controlled trial of the gene regulatory impact of prosocial behaviour. Psychoneuroendocrinology. Volume 81, July 2017, pages 8-13.
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