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Volunteering in Retirement – Exploring the Health Benefits of Giving Back

By Sixty and Me May 29, 2019 Interviews

As women of retirement age, many of us have spent our adult lives caring for families, careers or both. But our changing roles have left many of us without a meaningful sense of purpose. In today’s video, Margaret Manning’s guest relational psychologist Dr. Dale Atkins offers kindness as the answer.

Spending our golden years following the Golden Rule through volunteering or other acts of kindness does marvelous things for our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. And, according to Dr. Atkins’ book The Kindness Advantage, we now have the scientific research to prove it! Read on for her insights on how we can make our world a kinder one!

Helper’s High

The best news, Dr. Atkins says, is that these positive benefits accompany all acts of kindness, large or small. From acknowledging a neighbor, the mail carrier or the bank teller with a friendly smile to volunteering several hours a week for our cherished causes, all kind acts pay dividends. How?

By altering our brain chemistry! When we’re doing for others, our brains release feel-good chemicals called endorphins. It’s similar to the endorphin-related euphoria that comes with a long session of aerobic exercise. But we experience helper’s high because, as human beings, our DNA programs us to be social.

The Kindness Advantage points to a body of research that underscores our need for continued socializing as we age. Regular volunteering is a terrific way to connect with others. With it comes a place to find meaning by making a difference.

Through volunteering — or simply going out of our way to treat others with kindness — we feel better about ourselves, become less vulnerable to depression and experience fewer age-related aches and pains.

Those benefits, in turn, encourage us to eat properly, exercise regularly and generally pay more attention to our health. Being kind to others, in other words, is the best way to be kind to yourself!

Kindness and Etiquette

As women over 60, we remember when a sending handwritten thank-you note was simply “the done thing.” But for many younger people, social media is the accepted way to communicate. Differing expectations about properly acknowledging gifts (if at all) is a classic example of changing etiquette.

Are these changes testing your kindness?  If so, why not see them as teaching opportunities? When you perceive what looks like rude behavior, stop to consider what might have caused it.

Then, before you act, take as much time as you need to understand what in you is causing such a negative reaction. Our unfriendly thoughts, Dr. Atkins warns, often have more to say about us than about others!

If you still think you should speak out, rehearse what you’d like to say. The key is to avoid scolding or demonizing when confronting someone about a hurtful action.

In the case of an unacknowledged gift, for example, the sender might mention how much time went into choosing the item — and how much anticipation into hearing it was received and appreciated.  

The result of not hearing? A feeling of being cheated (or worrying that the gift had gone astray) because the recipient didn’t respond with an expression of gratitude!

The lesson comes as a friendly suggestion that acknowledging future gifts will spare their givers similar worry or disappointment.  With that, what could have been a judgmental scolding becomes an instruction in kindness!

Modeling Kindness Takes Practice

Nobody becomes a role model without work. Being kind often means taking the time to let our negative emotions subside before reacting to rudeness. Flying off the handle seldom results in a soft landing!

In really difficult situations, stress hormones often overwhelm us with a fight-or-flight response. Sometimes the best thing is to walk away and revisit the subject when we can model the behavior we’d like to receive.

What Kindness Isn’t

Simply repressing our negative emotions isn’t being kind to anyone! It just stimulates the brain-damaging stress response and does nothing to encourage kindness in others!

Avoiding disagreements isn’t kind. Dr. Atkins supports developmental molecular biologist Dr. John Medina’s findings that having spirited, fact-based arguments with people close to us is one of the best things we can do for our brains.

The trick is to remain open to different perspectives while defending our own — and to sharing a hug and a glass of wine when it’s over!

The Most Important Question

As soon as we ask “What’s the kind thing to do here?” we’re on the way to a better world – for our families, friends, colleagues and anyone we encounter along the way. And building a better world, after all, is the kindest thing we can do for ourselves!

What does being kind mean to you? What role does volunteering play in your efforts to make the world a kinder place? What positive effects have your volunteering or other gestures of kindness had on your own physical or emotional health? Please share in the conversation!

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The Author

Sixty and Me is a community of over 500,000 women over 60 founded by Margaret Manning. Our editorial team publishes articles on lifestyle topics including fashion, dating, retirement and money.

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