How kindness makes us all stronger

Published 1:07 pm Friday, March 29, 2024

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When was the last time someone was kind to you? Or you were kind to someone else? What were the ripple effects of those moments?

A few days ago, a colleague offered to help me meet a deadline since he had extra time and I was busy. It made me feel appreciated and supported, and eager to aid him in return. Also a few days ago, I wrote a “thinking of you” note to a friend going through a tough time. She was surprisingly grateful, which made the rest of my day feel lighter and more meaningful. 

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None of this would surprise scientists. The “science of kindness” finds that being kind to others not only makes us happier but also healthier. Literally. According to the Mayo Health Clinic, when we are kind, our blood pressure goes down and our serotonin and dopamine – the well-being and satisfaction chemicals in our brain – go up. 

Being kind helps us as individuals. It also makes our communities healthier. Kindness is contagious. One study showed this by giving participants a certain amount of money, having some of them receive a kind act, and then give part of their money to a stranger. Those who had received a kindness were more generous than those who hadn’t. They paid the kindness forward.

We’re so wired to respond to kindness that we don’t even have to actually do it. We become more generous if we just think about doing something kind, or if we see another person do a kindness. This even works in polarized situations. Another study found that thinking about kindness (“befriending meditation”) can reduce our negative feelings about people from the other political party. 

So why don’t we do kind acts more often? 

We tend to underestimate exactly how meaningful it will be for the other person when we are kind. We’re shy.

We can get over this. We can treat kindness like a muscle, practicing and strengthening our ability. An Oxford University study showed that doing a kind action every day for seven days increased people’s happiness. The more kind acts participants did, the happier they were, regardless of whether the kindness was towards family, friends, strangers, or themselves.

Better yet, we can treat kindness as a mentality rather than a sequence of actions. We can think about how we can live more compassionately, more patiently, more generously with each other and ourselves.

Up for  a 7-day kindness challenge? and the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation have ideas. Gather your family, a work or sports team, or a book club. Set a goal for numbers of acts of kindness for the week. Reach out to someone who might be lonely or down, hold your tongue instead of making a snarky remark, compliment someone you see on the street, pick up a piece of litter, leave a generous tip. 

Then talk about how it made you feel. Did you feel more connected? Satisfied? Lighter? Did you start to identify more opportunities for kindness? Can kindness become our mindset?

(Melinda Burrell, PhD is a former humanitarian aid worker and now trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict. She is vice-chair of the National Association for Community Mediation, which offers resources for community approaches to difficult issues.)