Forget faddy 'superfoods' and the latest turbo supplement, research shows that simply being kind to other people is overwhelmingly more beneficial for our health than either. There’s no small print; from cutting stress levels to decreasing our chances of getting a whole range of diseases, reaping the rewards of, basically, being a decent person is as straightforward as it sounds.
'Be kind' might sound like a fluffy phrase best left to being painted on dusty pink backgrounds for Instagram, but the stats are serious. To take a couple of examples: Regular exercise lowers your mortality risk by 23-33%; a strong support network does so by 45%. Eating your recommended daily fruit and veg cuts the danger of dying early by 26%, for volunteering, it’s 22-44%. This is according to Marta Zaraska, writer of Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100.
What does kindness look like?
‘Kindness is obviously hard to define, but I think we also know what we mean by it,’ says Zaraska. ‘In general, it’s different ways of giving back to others.’
The possibility for acts of kindness will vary person-to-person, but there are some things that — pandemics not withstanding — we can all do to make a difference.
This may be ‘formal giving, like volunteering or monetary donations, or it can also be giving back to people closest to you, like family, friends or your community,’ explains Zaraska.
‘It can be as small as making tea for your spouse or picking up some litter on the way to the store. Basically it boils down to thinking about other people instead of yourself, thinking how and what you can do to make life slightly better for them, no matter how small or big’.
Science strongly backs up this idea that kindness benefits our bodies and minds.
‘In neuroimaging studies, we can see in the brain when people are thinking kind thoughts. You can see it’s a biological, important, evolved part of being human.’
Research shows when we support others and do kind things for them, the activity in our amygdala (fear centres) goes down and sends our calming response to our body, meaning our cortisol (stress hormone) responds in a healthier way.
How can we be more kind?
Rather than obsessing over the best fancy elixir to stick in your morning smoothie in the quest for optimum health, says Zaraska, people should be considering their purpose.
‘Healthy eating and exercise are important, but it’s about the degree to which we go,’ she elucidates. ‘I like the quote from Michael Pollen: ‘Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.’ You don’t need to eat heritage-grown, organic broccoli that was grown using the tears of unicorns, just your regular carrots, apple and cucumber are perfectly fine. It's kind of simple.'
Plus, much like lacing up you trainers and heading for a run, this is one healthy habit that doesn't require you buying stuff.
‘Making coffee for a friend, letting someone ahead of you in traffic or volunteering you time is free, so nobody’s making money,' observes Zaraska. 'Whereas talking about miracle foods [means that] ultimately someone is selling products. But, from a health perspective, kindness is far more useful than any supplement.’
She emphasises that the acts can be small and simple: 'You can just send flowers to nearest hospital with a message saying thanks, leave a Post-It with a smiley face on your neighbour’s door or just smile at people. Not only will you feel better but, in the future and out of lockdown, you’ll have better connections and maybe new friendships. In short, be kind and think about people.’
Volunteering is the most formal way to act kindly. Research shows giving time has bigger health returns than giving money, though financial donations have some unexpected effects on the body.
‘Studies show giving money can actually make our muscles stronger,’ Zaraska explains. ‘They can hold weights longer and have a stronger hand grip than before donating, so it boosts something.’
Kindness can have lots of different expressions and can extend beyond how you interact with our own species. Caring for animals, whether it’s doting on your pets or swerving meat, both count, for example. ‘If you're vegan and you see your diet as an act of kindness, it will have additional health benefits to just doing it because you think it’s better for you. It will give you an extra health boost,’ says Zaraska.
Neuroimaging studies show that thinking of yourself as a kind person and recalling your kind acts in the past or just simply thinking about them changes our brain activation and has impact on our physiology.
‘So simply changing the way you think about being vegan or vegetarian can give you that boost — you can think: "I’m doing it for cholesterol" or "I'm doing it for the animals" '.
7 physical benefits of kindness
1/ Improves longevity
Being king can literally help you to live longer. As Zaraska explains: ‘All the stress-reducing propensities of kindness and the impact of the immune system is linked together.' This, she says, can help to prevent us from getting illnesses like cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
2/ Lowers your blood pressure
The stats showing the effects of loneliness on the body are mind-boggling. Did you know the sensation is as bad for the body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day? It’s worse for you than obesity? And it’s likely to increase your risk of dying by 26%?
It’s a huge problem in today’s society, but ‘kindness is a great loneliness therapy. Instead of thinking: "How lonely am I? Think: what can I do for other people today?", says Zaraska.
‘There is so much evidence showing people who are socially isolated live shorter lives. As well as being 2.5-3 times more likely to die prematurely than other people, they also have shorter telomeres (the protective caps at the end of the chromosomes that make a difference to how we age), higher blood pressure, and different gene expression when it comes to inflammation and cancer.’
These biological effects have been acknowledged as a big public health issue, with the UK employing the position of Minister for Loneliness in 2018.
3/ It lessens the physical effects of stress
Caring for others can bring down our stress levels. Zaraska cites our brain's caregiving system, the existence of which highlights how kindness is an evolved part of being human.
‘It’s an example of how something worthy of some fluffy quote can have real effects on the body,’ she says. ‘We’ve evolved to look after our offspring, as human babies are unusually helpless and we have to put extra care to make sure they survive, so we have extra systems to make sure caregiving is rewarding.’
This isn’t just one’s own children but other people, like friends, partners or neighbours.
'It activates the reward part of the brain, so we want to give more of it. It’s also linked to our amygdala and stress reduction systems, which can sound counterintuitive — especially for anyone with a young baby — but you can’t provide good care when highly stressed, so it’s evolutionarily calming for our bodies.’
4/ Improves immunity
Studies show palpable effects of kindness on the immune system, with an increase of the white blood cells, which fight off bacteria and viruses, in the body, compared to those in a control group.
‘For example, if you buy coffee for someone, you can really see changes in your blood cells. It’s fascinating how deeply influential they are,’ says Zaraska.
In the context of 2020, she explains ‘we know that when people volunteer, their antiviral response improves on the level of proteins that have been implicated in severe COVID. There’s no research yet but it improves our antiviral response in general, so it’s likely beneficial.’
5/ Gives similar gains to having a healthy diet
‘In randomised trials, people who volunteer regularly (approximately one hour per week) have lower mortality rates and risk anywhere between 22-44%, so at least as much as a healthy diet,’ says Zaraska.
This includes lower mortality risk, blood pressure and inflammation levels.
6/ You might spend less time in hospital
As well as the impact on one’s own health, studies show it’s the purpose that kindness gives you that makes a big difference.
‘[People who feel they have purpose are] better at preventative health care, like cholesterol checks, pap smears and mammograms. If you feel life has a meaning, you take better care of it’, explains Zaraska. ‘Even when one side is controlled, there still remains a big effect on our body, including stress reduction, effects on gene expression, inflammation levels — these are the physiological effects of being caring and kind.'
7/ Releases your happy hormones
Connecting with others – say, by being extra kind to the person serving you at the supermarket or getting down to your local food bank to help out, releases our 'happy hormones'. Volunteering, for one, can lead to a rush of endorphins (you know, the ones you get after you hit up an extra savage workout), which is what is often known as the 'helper's high.'
‘Our bodies are still built to be a social ape, we’ve evolved to be with our tribe and we function the best when we’re surrounded by our people,' says Zaraska. 'Online connections are just not the same, no matter how much people want us to live online, as we have bodies and they’re still stuck in Palaeolithic times. Our social hormones are released when you have a real connection with people, not through text message or social media comment.’
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