In January, Rachel Glyn’s husband of 36 years died of cancer. Two months later, the pandemic and lockdown hit. Alone in her Philadelphia apartment, Ms. Glyn spent her time worrying about the coronavirus, the financial markets and the civil unrest happening a few blocks away. Some days, she says, she wished she would die. “I’ll never have another day that doesn’t stink,” she told herself.
Then one morning, Ms. Glyn, who is 66, heard about a local blood drive and thought, “My life isn’t a pathetic mess after all: I have the ability to give.” She walked to a nearby hospital and donated. Afterward, she was “exhilarated,” she says.
“It felt wonderful to do something useful for someone,” Ms. Glyn says. “I no longer was this nobody who has nothing to do except endure a wretched situation.”
Want to feel better? Be kind.
It’s a good thing to make another person feel good. But being kind—doing something to help someone else—can help you, too. Research links kindness to a wealth of physical and emotional benefits. Studies show that when people are kind, they have lower levels of stress hormones and their fight-or-flight response calms down. They’re less depressed, less lonely and happier. They have better cardiovascular health and live longer. They may be physically stronger. They’re more popular. And a soon-to-be published study found that they may even be considered better looking.
Being kind is an excellent coping skill for the Covid-19 era. In a time of isolation, kindness fosters connection to others. It helps provide purpose and meaning to our life, allowing us to put our values into practice. And it diminishes our negative thoughts. “Our attention isn’t something that is infinitely expansive,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “What we are feeling at any given moment is related to what we are doing, so if we are behaving kindly, that experience will occupy our emotion.”
Psychologists call kindness altruism and talk of two types: reciprocal (you help someone because it will benefit you in some way—like giving money to get a tax break) and pure (you have no expectation of reward). Humans evolved to do both. We’re not the biggest, strongest or fastest animal in the kingdom, so we needed to band together to survive. “The key to our success is not the survival of the fittest,” says Jamil Zaki, a neuroscientist and associate psychology professor at Stanford. “It’s survival of the friendliest.”
Of course some people are kinder than others—specifically, people born with the personality trait of empathy. Yet, nature accounts for just half of our propensity to be kind, says Dr. Zaki. The rest is nurture—we learn it from our parents, our family and our community. And we can also teach ourselves. “Kindness is a skill we can strengthen, much as we would build a muscle,” says Dr. Zaki, who is the author of “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.”
Kindness can even change your brain, says Stephanie Preston, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who studies the neural basis for empathy and altruism. When we’re kind, a part of the reward system called the nucleus accumbens activates—our brain responds the same way it would if we ate a piece of chocolate cake. In addition, when we see the response of the recipient of our kindness—when the person thanks us or smiles back—our brain releases oxytocin, the feel-good bonding hormone. This oxytocin boost makes the pleasure of the experience more lasting.
It feels so good that the brain craves more. “It’s an upward spiral—your brain learns it’s rewarding, so it motivates you to do it again,” Dr. Preston says.
Are certain acts of kindness better than others? Yes. If you want to reap the personal benefits, “you need to be sincere,” says Sara Konrath, a psychologist and associate professor at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, where she runs a research lab that studies empathy and altruism.
It also helps to expect good results. A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2019 showed people who believed that kindness is good for them showed a greater increase in positive emotions, satisfaction with life and feelings of connection with others—as well as a greater decrease in negative emotions—than those who did not.
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