Kindness Can Kill Pain

In a recent novel study undertaken at China’s Peking University, researchers showed that altruism (being kind to others) has a beneficial biological effect on pain.

This one is right up my alley. Being a lifelong, avid believer in the Golden Rule (do unto others as you’d have them do unto you), the very idea that being kind to others might help me cope with rheumatoid disease (arthritis) joint pain intrigues me.

Acts of kindness and pain relief

But it’s not just an idea. According to the website Pain News Network:1

[The study’s] findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that selfless behavior reduced activity in regions of the brain that process pain signals.

Why do people commit acts of kindness?

Wow. The researchers wanted to know why people commit acts of kindness toward others when there is no direct or even indirect benefit to themselves, and even when it might cause real hardship in their own lives.

An example of this might be sharing your limited supply of food with a stranger during a natural disaster like a flood or earthquake, even though doing so will mean you’ll have less for yourself. Another example: giving someone money or goods out of kindness, knowing that it will cause you hardship.

Such acts of simple altruism are universal — and they’re universally treasured.

How kindness affects pain perception

The researchers did MRI brain scans on more than 300 people for the study. What the scans showed was that when people show kindness to others, biologic pain receptors in the brain instantly mute pain perception.

It seems that altruism — kindness and generosity toward others — turns out to be a sort of natural opioid.

Looking at different types of pain

Lead study author Yilu Wang wrote that:1

Our research has revealed that in adverse situations, such as those that are physically threatening, acting altruistically can relieve unpleasant feelings, such as physical pain, in human performers of altruistic acts from both the behavioral and neural perspectives.

And it seems to work whether the pain is acute or chronic, mild, or severe. “Acting altruistically relieved not only acutely induced physical pain among healthy adults but also chronic pain among cancer patients,” Yang stated.1

My experience with pain relief and kindness

When I do something nice for someone else — even something as small as smiling and holding a door open — my focus moves away from myself and how I might be feeling, onto the person I’m helping. For that moment, I don’t feel pain. I’ve always thought it was simply because I was distracting myself in a nice way. But this study shows that there is more to it than that. My lessened pain is an actual physical response.

It’s good to know that science backs up what most of us already know: that kindness is good for everyone.

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