Kindness. We just can’t get enough of it. Millions of us click on viral posts of random acts online: people proudly post images of the exorbitant tip left to an unsuspecting waitress or videos of a rescue team saving a horse from drowning. Even today’s workplaces are exploring the emotional effects of kind acts among coworkers.
“Office culture can be cutthroat and competitive, leading to hurtful criticism, lack of collaboration, and miscommunication,” says Dr. Pragya Agarwal. “However, now we are increasingly talking about wellbeing in the workplace, and bringing an authentic quality to our work, being gentle with ourselves, and with others around us.”
Research shows kindness and well-being are closely linked. Although the benefits to the recipients of kind acts are evident, science is uncovering connections between kindness and one’s health and overall happiness.
If you need an incentive to take the high road when you interact with people, here are four healthy and happy rewards for choosing kindness.
1. Improves Heart Health
There’s a reason why kind people are known for having big hearts—literally. According to Dr. David R. Hamilton, the emotional reaction to acts of kindness release the hormone oxytocin.
“Oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide in blood vessels, which dilates (expands) the blood vessels,” explains Hamilton. “This reduces blood pressure and therefore oxytocin is known as a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone because it protects the heart (by lowering blood pressure).” So it seems science proves that having a heart is actually good for it, too.
How can you reap these heart-health benefits? Plenty of studies have shown that social support is associated with better health, including cardiovascular health. So get out there in the community, make friends with your neighbors, and see how it benefits your heart—emotionally and physically.
2. Reduces the Risk of Depression
A study headed by Stephen Post of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine found that when we share our time, resources, and other selfless acts, everything from life satisfaction to self-realization and physical health is significantly improved. Mortality is delayed, depression is reduced, and wellbeing and good fortune are increased.
At Cedars-Sinai, scientists are studying the links between kindness and increased dopamine levels. As dopamine is known for elevating feelings of euphoria, research is focused on the effects dopamine has on mental health.
“Mindfulness-based therapy is becoming increasingly popular for treating depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions,” say doctors at Cedars-Sinai. “The therapy is built on mindfulness meditation, documenting your gratitude, and acts of kindness. People being treated in a mindfulness-based therapy program incorporate acts of kindness into their daily routines.”
Essentially, practicing kindness increases your dopamine levels, which ultimately helps improve your overall happiness and health.
3. Reduces Anxiety
In a study published by the University of British Columbia Study, a test group comprised of highly anxious individuals performed at least six acts of kindness a week. After one month, there was a significant increase in positive moods and relationship satisfaction, as well as a decrease in social avoidance in socially anxious individuals. The act itself didn’t need to be big to be effective. Kind acts took larger forms like donating to a favorite charity and small gestures such as putting a quarter in a stranger’s parking meter that was about to expire.
“We found that any kind act appeared to have the same benefit, even small gestures like opening a door for someone or saying ‘thanks’ to the bus driver,” says Dr. Lynn Alden, who led the study. “Kindness didn’t need to involve money or time-consuming efforts, although some of our participants did do such things. Kindness didn’t even need to be ‘face to face.’”
In other words, it isn’t the size of the act that promotes happy feelings but the act itself. When anxiety creeps in, try being more kind. Doing so can help reduce your anxious feelings and replace them with positive ones.
4. May Extend Your Lifespan
Some experts believe one of the keys to a long life is our social network. “What we call loneliness—the feeling that you have no one to turn to, that no one understands you—is a form of stress,” explains Health.com writer Ray Hainer. “And if it becomes chronic, it can wreak havoc on your blood vessels and heart.” With heart disease being the number one killer among Americans, the connection between improved heart health and avoiding stress contributes to a longer life.
Socializing with purpose also has healthy effects. “People who volunteer tend to experience fewer aches and pains,” writes Christine Carter in her book Raising Happiness; In Pursuit of Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. “People 55 and older who volunteer for two or more organizations have an impressive 44% lower likelihood of dying early, and that’s after sifting out every other contributing factor, including physical health, exercise, gender, habits like smoking, marital status and many more. This is a stronger effect than exercising four times a week or going to church.”
Looking for a new strategy for better health and happiness? Try kindness. Studies show that performing kind acts have a positive effect on everything from reducing depression and anxiety to longevity. “We all seek a path to happiness,” says Dr. Waguih William IsHak, a professor of psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai. “Practicing kindness toward others is one we know works.”