Treating other people well isn’t just good for your karma. It’s good for your health and vitality, too.
Psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, author of Love 2.0: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, studies how “micro-moments” of connection with others, like sharing a smile or expressing concern, improve emotional resilience, boost the immune system, and reduce susceptibility to depression and anxiety.
In Fredrickson’s view, our psyches need affirmative human connection in much the same way that our bodies need wholesome food.
“Moments of uplifting positive emotions function like nutrients for creativity, growth, and health,” she says.
Still, while none of us wakes with the intention to curse other drivers, snap at our kids, or shame our employees, we do — more often than anyone likes.
And according to psychologist Elisha Goldstein, PhD, author of Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion, this may be because our brains contain a “negativity bias,” which favors cautious, fear-based thoughts over generous, positive ones.
We’ve evolved this defense mechanism to protect us from lurking danger, he notes, but it doesn’t protect our relationships very well. And in our fast-paced culture, where we compete for everything from parking spaces to pay raises, our primal survival behaviors are triggered routinely.
“We live in a kind of fundamental scarcity,” explains Kristi Nelson, executive director of A Network for Grateful Living, a nonprofit that promotes gratitude practice. “That sense of scarcity tends to run our lives.”
It also leads to perpetual rushing, which only makes matters worse. In Nelson’s view, the “preoccupation with always getting somewhere and getting more” drives an unhealthy tendency toward self-focus. We start to believe “it’s me or them.” All the time.
Under this kind of pressure, the very idea of being kind — keeping the needs and feelings of others in mind, showing care and empathy — can start to seem like a luxury at best. At worst, it just seems foolish.
Yet the act of focusing on others can reduce our eat-or-be-eaten anxieties. And in the process, it may actually improve our health and well-being.
In 2013 Fredrickson conducted a six-week study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that tested the effects of meditation on stress. Instead of focusing on a mantra or the sound of the breath, participants were instructed to meditate on compassionate thoughts toward themselves and others — including people they did not like.
After six weeks, participants were tested for the effects of their practice on the vagus nerve, a cerebral nerve that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to regulate digestion and cardiovascular health. In participants who reported an increase in positive feelings and social connections, “vagal tone” was also improved.
And kindness does get easier with practice. When we’re good to others, says Goldstein, our mental habits of scarcity, negativity, and rigidity begin to shift. We become less and less worried about getting our share.
Interested in encouraging that positive shift within yourself? Here are eight simple ways to begin.
Strategies for growing compassionate connections with yourself and others.
Adjust your automatic responses.
Stress triggers us to act in unkind ways — maybe cursing the driver who cut us off, or snapping at our kids when they’re slow getting dressed. Then we feel bad about it, which creates more stress.
“We get stuck in these anxious, negative loops,” says Goldstein. “So we seek out comfort where we can find it, and end up overeating, or paying too much attention to our smartphones, or otherwise constantly trying to distract ourselves.”
Fortunately, we can hack these automatic tendencies by consciously building new mental habits. “The brain has the wonderful ability to make things automatic,” Goldstein says. “When you have awareness that you want to be kind, and then you practice it, you’re essentially rewiring the compassionate part of your mind.”
When you notice an irritated thought, redirect your mind, he suggests. Don’t try to be kind right away; it will only annoy you further. Instead, take a breath and see if (counter to your automatic thoughts) you have what you really need and are basically OK.
You might still have time to get where you’re going, even if your kids are being pokey. Or you might realize that even if you are going to be late, you don’t want to waste time fuming about it. That’s all it takes to shift your mind into a kinder mode.
Put your hand on your heart.
This technique seems almost too simple to work, and yet it’s unbelievably effective for creating a sense of compassion and empathy, says Kristin Neff, PhD, University of Texas associate professor in human development, culture, and learning sciences, and author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.
Our physiology is hardwired to recognize this simple gesture as self-soothing. Trauma expert Peter Levine, PhD, theorizes that the hand-on-heart exercise works because the human nervous system is responsive to touch; like babies, we respond to being held by relaxing and calming down. That touch also brings us back into connection with our bodies and, in particular, our breath.
“It seems weird at first, when you start practicing this,” Neff admits. “But your mammalian system kicks in immediately when you place your hand on your heart. You begin to use a warmer, gentler tone with yourself and with others.”
Shift your focus to what’s working.
Cultivate a sense of satisfaction whenever you get the chance. Even when you feel like life is a chaotic mess and you’re not getting the love, respect, or paycheck you deserve, take a step back to recognize a few good things in your world, advises Nelson.
“Often, kindness is just about stopping in your tracks and becoming aware of what you have,” she says.
Being grateful for amorphous blessings like health and love is fine, but a more helpful inventory might include overlooked gifts like clean water, warm clothes, even the ability to read these words.
Nelson calls seeking and naming these fundamental gifts “the radical commitment to take nothing for granted.”
When life feels abundant, it’s easier to be generous — and avoid the trap of scarcity thinking.
Know the difference between obligations and opportunities.
Most of us have schedules, calendars, and other tools to keep us on track. Unfortunately, the quest to get things done can take precedence over our interactions with others. Marketing meeting: done. Oil change and brake repair: scheduled. Lunch with friend to talk about her divorce: check. What’s next on the day’s agenda?
“Many people are so wrapped up with their to-do lists that they treat people as obstacles, or as a means to some end that’s related to achievement,” says Fredrickson. “Why not slow down and really spend time in someone’s company? To do so is a gift to both you and the other person.”
The practice of being present in the midst of other people — not checking your phone, not rushing to deliver advice as soon as someone starts describing a problem, not scheduling social engagements back to back — can have profound effects, adds Goldstein.
He recalls one of his mindfulness students relating an anecdote about dinner with friends. Instead of always thinking about what she had to do next, she focused on listening to the conversation.
“Her friends noticed immediately, and they felt grateful,” he says. “That one decision had a ripple effect, where everyone there began showing each other more kindness.
“That’s what happens when we’re truly present with each other. You inspire other people to do the same for you.”
Respect those you help.
Giving to those in need is a beautiful act, but how you think about that gesture is important, says Nelson. She believes that “giving” is noble, but the notion of “charity” is inherently limiting. It doesn’t recognize how much we have in common with those we want to help, and it places us above them instead.
“Humility is one of the key ingredients to kindness,” she states. “When you’re being kind because you believe you’re better than someone else and they need your pity, then giving is less meaningful.”
Whatever the action is — volunteering at a soup kitchen, donating to a homeless shelter, or comforting a friend — there’s an enormous difference between being kind out of a sense of respect and doing it because you believe the other person is beneath you and has nothing to offer you in return.
“Pity sets up a hierarchy,” says Nelson. “It leads to us projecting our needs onto other people, not seeing what they truly need.”
Instead, she advises, keep in mind that we all are vulnerable and need help in our own ways. The kindness of generosity flows in all directions, including toward you. It feels good to give; you get something out of the interaction, too.
Be conscious of the money effect.
As Nelson points out, being preoccupied with acquiring material wealth can lead to unconscious unkindness. But even having money on our minds (which is hard not to do when we’re constantly encouraged to make and spend more of it) can be enough to make us less friendly.
In a fascinating set of experiments, researchers primed one set of subjects to think about money, showing them phrases related to wealth, screensavers with pictures of dollar bills, and more. They primed another group with neutral imagery.
The money-primed subjects underwent two observable changes: First, they became more self-reliant and less likely than the other group to ask for help. Second, they became markedly less inclined to offer help to others in need.
For example, in one experiment a researcher walked through the room and spilled a bunch of pencils. The subjects who’d been primed to think about money consistently offered less assistance, picking up far fewer pencils than the other group.
For Nelson, overcoming the influence of money on our behavior involves staying conscious of our scarcity mentality. “That sense of scarcity is insidious,” she says, “and it takes engagement and mindfulness to run counter to that.”
Once again, reminding yourself that you do have enough — even if your resources are modest — is a powerful tool for inciting a mindset of kindness and consideration.
Start at home.
Studies in behavioral science have found that most of us are more likely to act cheerful toward complete strangers than the people we see and live with every day.
While any positive interaction boosts our baseline well-being, according to Fredrickson, it’s good to bring our kindness practice home, not least because it can be more difficult to be warm and caring toward the people we see routinely — and who occasionally annoy us, bore us, or treat us rudely. If we can rise to that challenge, we know we’re really growing.
“When we think about kindness, we often imagine these grand gestures, but we don’t need to join the Peace Corps to create more compassion in our lives,” says Nelson. “Start by looking closer to home. How do you treat the people you live with?”
Remember that kindness is a practice, not a project.
In our quest for kindness, challenges are inevitable. Someone will always be driving slow in the fast lane or passing on the right. Mean-spirited gossip will forever be circulating at work. There will always be lines, angry online commenters, personal upheavals. And that’s OK.
“It’s better to see this as a playful adventure rather than a project that needs to get accomplished,” says Goldstein. “You’re trying to rewire yourself for a greater sense of well-being and purpose in the world, and that requires some lightness in your attitude. Once you become too aggressive or serious about it, then you’re going the wrong way.”
One trap many people fall into, according to Goldstein, is thinking of kindness as an achievement. This creates an idea of an endpoint: You did all the right things, so now you can check “being kind” off your to-do list.
A better approach, he suggests, is to strive to develop a growing awareness of what happens when we stray from kindness, and then gently direct ourselves back toward the compassionate path.
“You can cultivate kindness” says Goldstein, “by simply inviting yourself to begin again.”