hat improves health, can cost nothing, and has no ill effects? Kindness! Every single act of kindness we extend to others and ourselves can lead to health benefits that help us live longer, healthier lives. According to Psychology Today
, researchers have found a direct connection between a lifestyle of kindness and improved well-being.Physical benefits of being considerate range from lower cortisol (stress hormones) to improved immune responses. Practicing kindness regularly can alleviate pain and lower blood pressure. It also protects against heart disease twice as well as aspirin.
The Association for Psychological Science reports that when people are kind, “They’re less depressed, less lonely and happier. They have better cardiovascular health and live longer. They may be physically stronger. They’re more popular.”
Christine Carter is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. In Psychology Today, she writes that those over age 55 who volunteer have a 44 percent lower likelihood of dying early. Even factoring in things like exercise and smoking, volunteering can add years to your life.
Is kindness teachable? Can it be practiced? In a podcast for Ohio’s University Hospital, psychiatrist Marcie Hall says people can learn kindness. “It’s not a virtue or a quality that you’re born with. Although people are born to be kind, we’re also born with the capacity to be unkind,” she says. “It’s important that you recognize it as being more of a practice, more of a habit, and less of a personal quality.”
Thoughtfulness and kindness seem to come naturally to some —specifically, people who are empathetic. Yet, only about half of our tendencies toward kindness are inborn, the rest is either learned from our environment or reinforced by our own choices, says Jamil Zaki, a neuroscientist and professor at Stanford University. “Kindness is a skill we can strengthen, much as we would build a muscle.”
“When we’re suggesting people be kind, it’s really more to enhance your life and the lives of those around you,” says Hall. She notes that there are countless ways to be thoughtful. “It’s almost impossible to make a concise list. It’s essentially being helpful, being courteous [and] being kind.”
So how does kindness impact us physically? When we practice kindness, we see increased levels of oxytocin. That’s the hormone and brain chemical that helps us feel an increased sense of connectedness and trust.
When our brain makes oxytocin, it can give us immediate benefits and higher levels of it may reap advantages over time. It can cause our blood vessels to dilate, fortify our immune system, and increase our energy levels. And while we are reaping these physical boosts, we can experience an increase in self-esteem. “So, you’re living longer and feeling better about yourself,” says Hall.
There are skeptics, people who don’t want to believe kindness matters, and others who feel that it must be an oversimplification, Hall says. They think, “… you must not know how hard life really is.”
But stop and think about it. Kindness and social activities create a great pathway for truly understanding one another, including our hardships. Hall says that some of the kindest people in our lives are people who have been through the most challenging times.
When you’re practicing kindness to others, remember to extend those same intentions