Treating other people well isn’t just good for your karma: It’s also a boost for your mental and physical health. And because small gestures have big importance, practicing kindness is an easy means to support your health.
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, help to 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 explains.
Meanwhile, moods happen. While none of us wakes up with the intention to curse at our spouse or shame our work colleague, we do — probably more often than any of us would like.
According to psychologist Elisha Goldstein, PhD, author of Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion, unwelcome outbursts may be at least partly attributable to our brains’ “negativity bias,” which encourages us to favor cautious, fear-based thoughts over generous, positive ones.
We evolved this defense mechanism to protect us from lurking danger, he notes, but it doesn’t protect our relationships very well. And in this moment, when we’re still trying to figure out life in a pandemic-altered world, our primal survival behaviors are triggered routinely.
This can make us fearful and anxious about lacking what we need, something that was true even before COVID-19. “We live in a kind of fundamental scarcity,” explains Kristi Nelson, MPA, executive director of A Network for Grateful Living, a Massachusetts-based 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. Even if we’ve slowed down and are staying at home more than we once did, we may still rush to seek all the answers, to know what’s coming next, to figure everything out. And we can be pretty hard on ourselves and others when this isn’t possible.
Under this kind of pressure, the very idea of practicing kindness — keeping the needs and feelings of others in mind, showing care and empathy — can seem like a luxury at best. At worst, it just seems foolish.
Yet the act of focusing on others can actually reduce our eat-or-be-eaten anxieties because it improves our health and well-being.
In 2013 Fredrickson conducted a six-week study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that measured 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 disliked.
After six weeks, researchers studied the effects of the practice on each participant’s vagus nerve, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to regulate digestion and cardiovascular health. Those who reported more positive feelings and social connections also displayed improved vagal tone.
This research shows that even if you’re habitually cautious or cranky, there’s hope. Kindness does get easier — with practice.
And when we are kind to others, says Goldstein, our mental habits of scarcity, negativity, and rigidity begin to shift. We feel less worried about getting our share, and that leaves more goodness on the table for everyone to enjoy.