An adult woman carries groceries for a senior woman, as she knows that kindness makes you healther.

Why Kindness Makes You Healthier

Bethesda Health | August 21, 2019

When you are kind to another person, even in a small way, it has a positive effect by helping that person feel valued and supported. If you make such acts of kindness a regular habit, it’s actually good for your health and even slows your body’s aging process, according to research.

“Two culprits that speed the process of aging are free radicals and inflammation. But remarkable research shows that the oxytocin [hormone] that we produce because of emotional warmth reduces the levels of both culprits in the cardiovascular system and so slows aging at the source,” says David Hamilton, author of The Five Side Effects of Kindness: This Book Will Make You Feel Better, Be Happier & Live Longer.

In addition, oxytocin — known as the love or bonding hormone — triggers the release of a molecule known as nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels and reduces blood pressure, protecting the heart.

The benefits don’t stop there, Hamilton says. “There’s also a strong link between compassion and the activity of the vagus nerve, which regulates heart rate and controls inflammation levels in the body,” he notes.

A Boost to the Immune System

Even small acts of kindness, such as sharing a smile or holding the door for someone, give your immune system a boost, making you more resilient and less anxious or depressed.

Experts think this is probably because of our brain’s primitive “negativity bias.” To survive and evolve as a species initially, we had to be constantly on alert for danger. Today, we still focus on fear-based thoughts — think of it as an air traffic controller who is always on duty — to protect ourselves from harm. Making kindness a habit can act as an antidote and result in our being more positive, happier and healthier.

A six-week study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that meditating on compassionate thoughts toward yourself and others, even about people you dislike, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and elevates the levels of dopamine (the feel-good hormone) in our brain. In this study, participants reported an increase in positive feelings, well-being, social connections, and relationships.

Random acts of kindness also make us feel grateful. That’s because when we help others — through say, volunteering — we become more aware of the blessings in our own lives.

Find volunteering opportunities in at Bethesda’s senior living communities in St. Louis here.

Kindness Fosters Self-Care

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed another benefit from spreading kindness. The study showed that when participants had a sense of purpose in their lives they were more likely to take better care of themselves by practicing preventive health care.

More good news: Being kind gets easier with practice. Just like a muscle gets stronger with regular training, a similar process occurs in the brain when you make kindness a habit.

“It’s about training your behavior and in turn, your neural circuits,” Hamilton says. “When kindness becomes a habit we start to produce ‘happy chemicals,’ like dopamine and oxytocin, more consistently, and that makes us feel good.”

Because of this positive feedback loop we’re encouraged to repeat the behavior, he says.

The Ripple Effect

Kindness is also contagious.

“When we’re kind, we inspire others to be kind. And studies show that it creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards, just as a pebble creates waves when it’s dropped into a pond,” Hamilton says. “Acts of kindness ripple outwards touching others’ lives and inspiring kindness everywhere the wave goes.”

Spreading kindness is the mission behind Megan Murphy’s Kindness Rocks Project, which she started in 2015. Murphy, a certified professional coach and SCORE business mentor, began to decorate river rocks with supportive messages and leave them for strangers to discover. Her rock project has become a movement.

“It’s easy to become overwhelmed by negativity in the world and become anxious or depressed,” says Murphy, author of A Pebble for Your Thoughts, How One Kindness Rock at the Right Moment Can Change Your Life. “It can have an adverse effect on your health.”

Instead, the Kindness Rocks Project combines art and messages of kindness to help participants feel good about creating and giving. “It’s actually a healing process because you are giving to the world what you would most like for yourself,” Murphy says.

4 Ways to Start a Kindness Habit

Need ideas on how to start a kindness habit? Here are some suggestions from Hamilton, including a challenge:

9 Ways to Show You Care

No matter where you are in life, whether you’re an adult child tasked with caring for a senior loved one or an older adult who is managing the challenges of aging, kindness can help our health. Find more useful health tips on Bethesda’s blog.

By Chrystle Fiedler for Next Avenue.

© Next Avenue – 2018. All rights reserved.

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