Improve Your Health? Try Kindness
by J’Nel Wright
Pssst! I heard about a secret that leads to better health. It doesn’t require taking more pills or swimming laps or even changing your diet. But it does require taking a different road to wellness. The high road, that is—a path filled with acts of kindness.
Research shows that kindness and well-being are closely linked. And that’s good news for people who want to feel good. Now the answer is to do good. There are both immediate and long-term benefits of being kind. In fact, performing simple acts like letting someone else take the closer parking spot reduces anxiety, for example, and activities like joining a book club or participating in neighborhood activities improve cardiovascular health.
I know I can be more considerate of other people. I’d like to think I deserve to be treated better by other people, too. We all do. So, if a simple act of being kind isn’t enough incentive, why not consider better health?
Kindness reduces anxiety.
When you feel like life is beyond your control, try thinking about others. A University of British Columbia study found that highly anxious individuals who performed at least six acts of kindness a week experienced an increase in positive moods and relationship satisfaction after as little as one month. People who performed regular acts of kindness also experienced a decrease in social avoidance. The good news is that the act doesn’t need to be big to be effective.
“We found that any kind act appeared to have the same benefit, even small gestures like opening a door for someone or saying thanks to the bus driver,” says Dr. Lynn Alden, who led the study. “Kindness didn’t need to involve money or time-consuming efforts, although some of our participants did do such things. Kindness didn’t even need to be face-to-face.”
It reduces the risk of depression.
When your self-image starts to suffer, turning your attention to the needs of others has a positive effect on your well-being. “Analyses showed that a greater focus on self-image goals was linked with more relationship conflict and a worsening of symptoms during the six-week study period,” says Seth J. Gillihan Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “In contrast, compassionate goals were associated with lower levels of symptoms and less relationship conflict.”
Psychology Today magazine’s website describes mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) as a modified form of cognitive therapy that incorporates breathing exercises and meditation. The goal of MBCT therapists is to help clients suffering from mild depression to break away from negative thought patterns so they can have better mental control over depression.
“Mindfulness-based therapy is becoming increasingly popular for treating depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions,” say doctors at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. “The therapy is built on mindfulness meditation, documenting your gratitude, and acts of kindness. People being treated in a mindfulness-based therapy program incorporate acts of kindness into their daily routines.”
Improves cardiovascular health
Studies show that kind gestures impact better health, including cardiovascular health. According to science writer Dr. David R. Hamilton, the emotional reaction to acts of kindness release the hormone oxytocin. “Oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide in blood vessels, which dilates the blood vessels,” explains Hamilton. “This reduces blood pressure and therefore oxytocin is known as a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone because it protects the heart.” So it seems science proves that having a heart is actually good for it, too.
May Extend Your Lifespan
It seems the secret sauce for a longer, healthier life may, in fact, depend on your social network. Take some advice from Bette Midler: “You gotta have friends.” To experience lasting health benefits, recruit those friends to help you in some community charitable efforts.
“What we call loneliness—the feeling that you have no one to turn to, that no one understands you—is a form of stress,” explains Health.com writer Ray Hainer. “And, if it becomes chronic, it can wreak havoc on your blood vessels and heart.” With heart disease being the number-one killer among Americans, the connection between improved heart health and avoiding stress contributes to a longer life.
Although there’s value in small talk, real health benefits depend on purposeful socializing activities. “People who volunteer tend to experience fewer aches and pains,” writes Christine Carter in her book Raising Happiness; In Pursuit of Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. “People 55 and older who volunteer for two or more organizations have an impressive 44-percent lower likelihood of dying early, and that’s after sifting out every other contributing factor, including physical health, exercise, gender, habits like smoking, marital status, and many more. This is a stronger effect than exercising four times a week or going to church.”
It’s true that sincere acts of kindness leave a lasting impression on other people. Now studies show that such acts leave a lasting impression on our health, too. “We all seek a path to happiness,” says Dr. Waguih William IsHak, a professor of psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai. “Practicing kindness toward others is one we know works.”
Photography by Helena Lopes @lyrawhite
J'Nel Wright is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in topics concerning health and wellness, aging, caregiving, humor, travel and business. Her work has appeared in a variety of regional and national publications. Her educational background includes a bachelor's degree in English and Social Work. She has traveled throughout Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, French Polynesia, Mexico and much of the United States. She is a full time writer.