One thing I have learned and am grateful for is knowing how being good to others can be good for you.
Treating other people well isn’t just good for your karma. It’s good for your health and vitality, too.
Psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, author of Love 2.0: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, studies how “micro-moments” of connection with others, like sharing a smile or expressing concern, improve emotional resilience, boost the immune system, and reduce susceptibility to depression and anxiety.
In Fredrickson’s view, our psyches need affirmative human connection in much the same way that our bodies need wholesome food.
“Moments of uplifting positive emotions function like nutrients for creativity, growth, and health,” she says.
Still, while none of us wakes with the intention to curse other drivers, snap at our kids, or shame our employees, we do — more often than anyone likes.
Moments of uplifting positive emotions function like nutrients for creativity, growth, and health.
And according to psychologist Elisha Goldstein, PhD, author of Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion, this may be because our brains contain a “negativity bias,” which favors cautious, fear-based thoughts over generous, positive ones. Isn’t that cheery news?
We’ve evolved this defense mechanism to protect us from lurking danger, he notes, but it doesn’t protect our relationships very well. And in our fast-paced culture, where we compete for everything from parking spaces to pay raises, our primal survival behaviors are triggered routinely.
“We live in a kind of fundamental scarcity,” explains Kristi Nelson, executive director of A Network for Grateful Living, a nonprofit that promotes gratitude practice. “That sense of scarcity tends to run our lives.”
It also leads to perpetual rushing, which only makes matters worse. In Nelson’s view, the “preoccupation with always getting somewhere and getting more” drives an unhealthy tendency toward self-focus. We start to believe “it’s me or them.” All the time.
Under this kind of pressure, the very idea of being kind — keeping the needs and feelings of others in mind, showing care and empathy — can start to seem like a luxury at best. At worst, it just seems foolish.
Yet the act of focusing on others can reduce our eat-or-be-eaten anxieties. And in the process, it may actually improve our health and well-being.
In 2013 Fredrickson conducted a six-week study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that tested the effects of meditation on stress. Instead of focusing on a mantra or the sound of the breath, participants were instructed to meditate on compassionate thoughts toward themselves and others — including people they did not like.
After six weeks, participants were tested for the effects of their practice on the vagus nerve, a cerebral nerve that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to regulate digestion and cardiovascular health. In participants who reported an increase in positive feelings and social connections, “vagal tone” was also improved. Who knew I was working on my “vagus nerve” just by giving someone a hug!
And kindness does get easier with practice. When we’re good to others our mental habits of scarcity, negativity, and rigidity begin to shift. We become less and less worried about getting our share.
Who can you be kind to today?