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My grandmother is 92, she’s a little deaf and frail. I hate to admit this but the idea of visiting her sometimes feels like a bit of a schlepp. It takes me out of my workday, out of my personal goals. Yet when I’m with her and for hours afterwards I feel happier. While service doesn’t always come naturally it’s really good for you. About the most selfish thing we can do is to serve others.

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health gave people $5 while they had their brains scanned. They could either keep it all or give some of it to charity. Astonishingly, when they gave some of it away there was significantly more activity in the reward center of their brains than when they kept it all for themselves. It feels good to give. Feels good to help too.

A girl loves to hold her boy’s hand right? In fact when she does the reward center of her brain lights up. But what if her boy was receiving a painful shock at the same time? Amazingly, holding his hand while he undergoes an electric shock leads to even more activity in the reward centers of her brain. Before you think these girls quite liked the idea of their boys in a bit of pain it turns out the brain gets a kick out of helping people in need. But even more than a boost in happiness, helping others could also make you live longer.

In her TED talk Dr. Kelly McGonigal reports on a study that asked a thousand people two questions: 1) “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” And 2) “How much time have you spent helping people in your community?” First the bad news: For every major stressor, like divorce or bankruptcy, the risk of dying increased by 30 percent. But – the astonishing, beautiful “But”- people who spent time helping others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. Nothing, nada, zero. Seems when you’re stressed the best thing you can do is help someone.

It’s partly got to do with a hormone in the body called Oxytocin. Emitted in mother’s milk to facilitate bonding with her baby Oxytocin is also known as the cuddle chemical because of the warm feelings of love and connection it creates. Not only does Oxytocin make us more loving and kind, it’s also a natural anti-inflammatory that helps heart cells regenerate and recover after stress related damage. Need an oxytocin boost? You don’t have to look for a breast-feeding mother. Hug someone, help someone, seek or give social support and you’ll give yourself a natural oxytocin high and inoculate yourself against the negative effects of stress.

Service doesn’t always come naturally to me but what I’ve realized is that being kind to others is the best way to be kind to myself. So Granny, I’m going to be even more selfish and visit you more often!

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