Is Kindness Good for Your Health?

On: August 22, 2017

by Pamela Leland, PhD, Executive Director

There is a video making the rounds that documents a prank in which a group of elders, some using walkers or a wheelchair, disrupt traffic as they try to cross a street. Drivers are caught showing various facial expressions (and hand gestures), indicating confusion, frustration and anger. Once the prank is revealed, there is sheepish acknowledgement that they were caught on “candid camera.”

We human beings are complex creatures. We have amazing capacity for generosity, kindness, and unselfishness. But we can also be inpatient, mean-spirited, and spiteful. In the span of a single day – whether at work, running errands, sharing a meal with friends, or at church – you can be a witness to this contrast of human behaviors.

We bring our whole selves to the places where we live – whether it is a single family home or a community living environment like The Hickman. In such an intimate space, the barriers break down and we, whether intentionally or unintentionally, behave in both kind and hurtful ways. We can be loving and supportive and also, at times, mean and ugly.  As I said, we are complex creatures.

As I have observed peoples’ behavior and their physical health here at The Hickman and in other residential living communities, my unscientific collection of anecdotes suggests there is a correlation between qualities of kindness and civility and physical condition. I have begun to wonder: is kindness good for one’s health?

Only a little bit of investigation reveals that the answer is yes: kindness is good for your health.

According to many sources, there are specific and tangible health benefits to the practice of kindness. Author and scientist, David Hamilton, PhD, lists the following::

Acts of kindness produce happiness.  Acts of kindness or service are correlated to elevated levels of Dopamine in the brain; dopamine produces feelings of happiness and satisfaction. This physiological change is sometimes referred to as the “helper’s high.”

Acts of kindness are heart-healthy.  Acts of kindness produce the hormone Oxytocin, a “cardio-protective” hormone, which protects the heart by lowering blood pressure.

Acts of kindness slow the aging process. Oxytocin also reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation which are known to speed the aging process. 

Acts of kindness are linked to our (collective) survival. It has been suggested that we are genetically wired for kindness – that acts of kindness in early humanoids led to a sense of being bonded to one another that led to cooperation between and among groups that allowed for human survival.

Our acts of kindness foster kindness (and health benefits) in others. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine documented that 10 people received a new kidney as a direct consequence of a single anonymous kidney door. This type of “pay it forward” ripple effect changed the lives of both individuals and all their families.

In addition to these physical health benefits, there are psycho-social benefits. Various sources indicate that that being kind to others …

  • Increases a sense of belonging and, therefore, reduces the sense of isolation
  • Increases confidence, a sense of control and optimism
  • Helps keep things in perspective and maintain a more positive attitude
  • Reduces feelings of anger, aggression and hostility
  • Creates positive memories that can be drawn upon in the future

Society teaches us that it is important to be kind to others. We encourage people to be courteous and civil by, for example, holding the door for someone, letting a car into traffic, allowing someone with fewer items to get in front of you at the grocery store. We also promote service to others, whether it is cutting your neighbor’s grass, taking a friend to the doctor, or volunteering at the local food bank.

While kindness is touted as a positive social value, there is also evidence that it brings direct and positive benefits to the individual who acts with kindness. Everyone benefits!

If you are interested in learning more this topic, check out the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation at www.randomactsofkindness.org

Originally published in the Daily Local in May 2015.