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Random Acts of Kindness: The Health Benefits

Pay it forward
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Maybe it's part of the push for "random acts of kindness" or a reaction against all the vitriol and general mean-spiritedness in our society or - as a recent study found - because doing something unselfish helps lower inflammation and improves our health.

Whatever the reason, people in many parts of the country are doing something nice for the stranger behind them in line: They're paying for that person's burger or coffee in the drive-through line, or for his or her toll at the tollbooth.

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Kate Murphy wrote about the trend in the New York Times on Sunday in a story headlined, "Ma'am, Your Burger Has Been Paid For." What typically happens is that a car pulls up to the drive-through window to pay and the cashier tells the driver, "The people ahead of you paid it forward."

And, as Murphy put it, "unless your heart is irreparably rotted from cynicism and snark, you feel touched."

It's usually just an individual car that does it, although serial outbreaks of generosity involving between four and 24 cars have been reported at fast-food drive-ups at Wendy's, McDonald's, Del Taco, Taco Bell, KFC and Dunkin' Donuts, as well as at Starbucks, in locations in Maryland, Florida, California, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, North Dakota, Michigan, North Carolina and Washington state, Murphy noted.

The idea of one person anonymously doing something nice for a stranger was popularized in the 2000 novel Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde, which was also made into a movie. The recent drive-through phenomenon "is an example of goodness gone viral," Hyde told the Times.

Well, maybe. It also could be because being unselfish not only makes us feel better about ourselves; it also makes our bodies healthier, including by strengthening our immune system.

A study from earlier this year by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of North Carolina found that people whose happiness was based on doing things for others, rather than on merely accumulating things, had lower inflammatory markers (inflammation has been linked to a higher risk of developing diabetes, cancer and heart disease) and improved levels of antibodies, needed for fighting off disease.

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The study, published in July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at how a person's psychological sense of well-being and satisfaction might affect the genetic workings inside white blood cells. The researchers analyzed the blood of 80 healthy volunteers who were asked about what made them happy and brought them satisfaction in life. Those with the least self-centered lives had healthier biomarkers than those whose lives were pretty much "all about me."

Obviously, based on this research, certain members of Congress shouldn't be feeling too healthy these days. But they're not the only ones who need some help in being kind.

In Georgia, motorists who were paying it forward by paying the toll for the car behind them on state Route 400 were ordered to stop being so charitable. Turns out, some of those toll takers were paying-it-nowhere and keeping the money for themselves.

Photo: Getty Images

ACA = Affordable Care Act = Obamacare






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