Photo by Hillary Ehlen
North Dakota’s longest-living citizen, Iris Westman, age 115 years, passed away recently. Reading her story, you can tell she lived a life of service. She was a UND graduate, taught school all over North Dakota and Minnesota and later earned another degree to become a librarian. She had no children of her own but was close to her nieces and nephews, and their offspring, gifting savings bonds along with college encouragement. I’ll venture to say that her giving spirit had something to do with her longevity.
Science reveals that generous behaviors, from formal volunteering and monetary donations to random acts of everyday kindness, promote well-being and longevity.
Studies show, for instance, that volunteering correlates with a 24 percent lower risk of early death—about the same as eating six or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day, according to some studies. What’s more, volunteers have a lower risk of high blood glucose and a lower risk of the inflammation levels connected to heart disease. They also spend 38 percent fewer nights in hospitals than people who shy from involvement in charities.
You might wonder if healthier people are able to volunteer more or, perhaps, work more so that they have the finances to give more. But even when scientists control for differences health, generosity still seems to add bonus years of living.
A study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association – Pediatrics followed a group of high school students in an urban Canadian city. Half volunteered weekly to tutor elementary school children for two months, while the other half was put on a waitlist for the same activity. Both groups had check-ups and blood tests. Compared to those on the waitlist, highschoolers who actively tutored the younger kids had lower levels of cholesterol, as well as lower inflammatory markers such as interleukin 6 in their blood, which plays a role in cardiovascular health and the immune response to viruses.
Even a random act of kindness, such as buying coffee for a stranger, can result in a measurable reduction in inflammatory blood markers. Imagine if you were treating them to a Dairy Queen Blizzard! One of the best holiday stories happened in Brainerd, Minn., on December 8 and 9, 2020, when 900 cars passed the drive-through window and paid for the order of the car behind them. This happened over two and a half days. Transactions totaled over $10,000.
Studies also show that donating blood seems to hurt less than having your blood drawn for a medical test, even though the needle may be twice as big when you donate. Stories of kindness abound despite the stress of the pandemic. Millions of homemade masks were shared. Hundreds of teddy bears and thousands of hearts filled windows to cheer children and parades became an innovative way of celebrating birthdays and graduations.
Steaming hot pans of lasagna were made and delivered all over the country, including Fargo, through a group called LasagnaLove.com. My family and I signed up and included Christmas gifts for the family we served. We can’t wait to deliver several pans soon to our local fire stations. The dishes may be high in calories, but maybe some of that is wiped out by the caring that created it.
My favorite holiday is Giving Hearts Day, February 11, 2021. Businesses, schools and individuals get to choose charities to love with time, talents, treasure and voice. In doing so, they foster health and well-being. I get teared up thinking back to the first GHD in 2009, bringing my son Grant, just a few months old in his car seat. He’s been part of it ever since and is an ambassador at his school. He loves the red balloons and the joy and learning about all the creative ways that people show love and care.
Live well, live long and live generously.