Years ago, while leading students on a nine-week bicycle trip through Europe, my wife and I happened to stay one night in Copenhagen, Denmark. That evening we had an amazing opportunity to see unselfish giving at its best. An outpouring of friendship, kindness and goodwill descended on us, from a filling station attendant closing up shop who drove us (with bikes) to church, to church attendees welcomingly inviting us for dessert, then offering to supply us with lunch the next day when they heard that cornflakes and sour cream was on our menu.
But this story isn’t only about travel and good will. It’s also about what type of behavior is tied to good health. Here was a group of people who went far beyond casual assistance to others to express real caring for us – even though there would apparently be no future benefits.
This experience gave us an unforgettable sense of appreciation and gratitude. And for those in Copenhagen? I could tell that it brought happiness, because they were all grinning and departed with a sense of joy. They likely did not know it, but their actions may have also increased their chances of longevity.
Ed Diener and Micaela Chan in their article “Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity” reviewed the correlation among subjective well-being, health, and longevity by analyzing many studies that took up this topic. What they found was that “there are now a number of converging lines of evidence based on diverse methodologies supporting the conclusion that SWB [subjective well-being] influences health and longevity.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there also appears to be a correlation between negativity and poor well-being. Danielle Ofri, M.D. points out in a recent blog post in The New York Times that a disrespectful attitude among health professionals creates an unhealthy hospital environment. She questions the tolerance of such a culture in her profession when such a disposition is causing the same harm that medication errors and surgical mistakes do. Evaluating our attitudes can be helpful when considering healthy bodies and minds. Studies increasingly conclude that sustained mental negativity is the enemy of well-being.
Maybe it comes down to that unique human quality of humility. The Bible records Jesus as intimating that there would be a reward for loving even our enemies. Alongside the benefits of a peaceful life, could we also gain better health?
The unprecedented kindness the Danish people expressed still feels fresh in my mind. This makes me feel goodwill toward my fellow man. What a fabulous example of the principle that what blesses one blesses all.
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