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Kindness is Good for Your Health and Here is Why

kindness, compassion, random acts of kindness, happiness

Being kind to others has been shown to bring a sense of richness and fulfillment to our lives that can be beneficial to our health. And now researchers with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found a biological reason why.

Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology, and her team of colleagues recruited 65 members of the university’s faculty and staff for a study on meditation and stress. About half were assigned to take an hour-long class each week for six weeks in “loving-kindness” meditation, which involves focusing on warm, compassionate thoughts about yourself and others. All of the study participants documented their daily amount of meditation and prayer as well as their experiences with both positive and negative emotions.

Before the 61 day study, each participant was tested for heart-rate variability, a measure the responsiveness of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is responsible for heart rate, gastrointestinal peristalsis, sweating, and muscle movements of the mouth, including for speech. Activation of this nerve can help lower heart rate and blood pressure, both reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease. The vagus nerve may also play a role in regulating glucose levels and immune response.

Previous studies have found that higher vagal tone is associated with a greater closeness to others and more altruistic behavior. The vagus nerve may also be important in social bonding because it influences the release of oxytocin.

The practice of meditation increased the level of the volunteers’ positive emotions (those not participating in loving-kindness classes), such as joy, interest, amusement, serenity and hope. However, those who practiced creating bonds with others and improving social connections through kindness were more likely to have improvements in vagus nerve tone.

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“The biggest news is that we’re able to change something physical about people’s health by increasing their daily diet of positive emotion, and that helps us get at a long-standing mystery of how our emotional and social experience affects our physical health,” says Fredrickson.

Here are some of the ways that being kind and compassionate to others can help improve health:
• Doing a kind deed for another person can make you feel more optimistic and happier, more energetic, and more able to resist pain.
• You may feel calmer and more relaxed, which can help you sleep better.
• Being kind to others may actually help with weight control. If you are feeling more social and less depressed, you are less likely to overeat. You are also more likely to get more physical activity during the day.

In addition to helping yourself, being kind to another also helps that person, causing a ripple effect that can bring about better health and positive social change to those around you.

Here is a short list of ideas from Action for Happiness for being kind:
1. Give up your seat
2. Hold a door open for someone
3. Give a (sincere) compliment
4. Make someone laugh
5. Give someone a hug
6. Take time to really listen to someone
7. Let one car in on every journey
8. Make someone new feel welcome
9. Help someone who's lost

Journal Reference:
Barbara L. Fredrickson, et al. How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science, 0956797612470827, first published on May 6, 2013

Additional Resources:
UK Kindness Movement
Action for Happiness