From handling emotional situations with care to simple gestures like holding a door open for a stranger, there is no question that kindness makes a positive impact. Whether you are on the giving or receiving end, it’s an undeniably wonderful feeling.
Experts are now learning there is even more to kindness than we previously thought. Evidently, it doesn’t just feel good to be kind; it can be good for our health and wellness too.
Here are some of the most compelling discoveries about kindness and what it could mean for a better you.
The Health Benefits of Kindness
1. Kindness helps boost our immune system
Can simply thinking kind thoughts make a difference? A group of researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill answered this question and made an important link between one’s physical health and embracing kindness through meditation.
In an experiment with 65 people, researchers enrolled half in an hour-long meditation class each week for six weeks, where they focused on compassionate, loving thoughts about themselves and others. The students were also encouraged to revisit their practice during stressful moments outside the classroom.
Each participant underwent heart rate variability testing before and upon completing the study to gauge the responsiveness of their vagus — a nerve that regulates how efficiently the heart rate changes with breathing. The results showed the meditators had better heart rate variability, which is often associated with enhanced immune responses, not to mention more altruistic behavior and deeper connections with others.
In another study, behavioral psychologist David McClelland had students watch a film about Mother Theresa’s work tending to orphans in India. After viewing the film, a rise in a protective antibody was detected in the students who viewed the film, in contrast to those who watched a neutral film. This finding, famously called “The Mother Theresa Effect,” led McClelland to conclude that simply thinking about kindness can strengthen the immune system.
Related: 7 Ways to Prevent a Cold
2. Kindness is a natural antidepressant
When you are feeling down, a common instinct is to sulk or become a bit removed from others. We’ve all been there, and engaging in kindness is likely the furthest thing from our mind during an episode.
Science suggests, however, that if we work through this lull and turn to acts of kindness, we trigger the release of the feel-good hormone serotonin and experience a more comfortable, happy, and sometimes blissful state.
Related: 6 Ways to Become Happy
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 11 percent of the people in the United States are taking antidepressants. After drugs for cholesterol, antidepressants are the second most prescribed drug in the U.S.
Interestingly, many of the market’s anti-depressant medications enhance the body’s utilization of serotonin in the same way an act of kindness does. Moreover, studies have revealed that an act of kindness increases the serotonin levels in both the giver and the receiver of the act (some even claim that onlookers can benefit).
3. Kindness keeps us looking and feeling youthful
The anti-aging industry is expected to hit $114 billion by 2015. From creams to cosmetic surgery, the items and procedures are endless and expensive.
There may be good, less-pricey news for those of us wishing to look and feel younger. Scientists have recently learned that simply engaging in acts of kindness releases the hormone oxytocin. This brain chemical is proven to help lower blood pressure, and, most importantly, decrease free radicals and inflammation – the major culprits associated with the aging process.
Oxytocin has also been found to reduce cortisol in the body, resulting in people feeling less stressed, less anxious, and developing a strong sense of social connections.
In addition to the release of oxytocin, we now know that meditation also affects the vagus nerve, which not only strengthens immunity but has also been linked to reducing inflammation in the body. It appears that whether we think kind thoughts or engage in them, we are slowing down the aging process.
4. Acts of kindness are contagious
Is kindness something we can catch like a cold or the flu?
One study by a group of universities examined how acts of kindness impact our tendencies. In the experiment, participants viewed either a nature documentary or an inspiring segment from the Oprah Winfrey Show, and then were asked to help with another task. It was discovered that the viewers who watched the Oprah segment felt uplifted and were more likely to help.
The researchers determined that the feeling of elevation was physiological – by simply watching something inspirational with “kind content,” the viewers’ body chemistry changed and they were more motivated to help others. In other words, kindness is contagious.
Some experts on the subject of kindness have learned more, realizing there is a fourfold effect. James Fowler, associate professor at the University of California, San Diego discovered that if someone does something nice for you, you will, in turn, do something nice for about four other people.
Related: 9 Surprising Benefits of Smiling
Whether you are watching content infused with kindness, or are the lucky recipient of a kind deed, there is a strong likelihood it will multiply.
Clearly there is more to kindness than we previously thought. Not only does kindness feel good, it has numerous health benefits, including acting as an immune system boost and an antidepressant. So, be kind to your body…by being kind.
Christina Daigneault is an attorney and award-winning communications professional. She is the President of Orchard Strategies, a public relations firm that regularly works with health and wellness practitioners and brands. Christina is often called upon to speak about the leadership of women in business, law, and communications. You can follow Christina on Twitter @ChristinaEDVB
Photo by joy.jordan