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Practicing Kindness Can Keep You Healthy

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Practicing Kindness Can Keep You Healthy

Mar 29, 2018
Being kind is good for your health. Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones talks about why practicing kindness can lead to a happier, healthier life, and discusses some simple ways to practice being kind that can improve your overall wellbeing.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Jones: If there was something you could do that would improve at least four of your seven domains of health, would you do it if it was pretty easy and it didn't require a diet and exercise? This is Dr. Kirtly Jones from Obstetrics and Gynecology at University of Utah Health, and this is The Scope.

Announcer: Covering all aspects of women's health, this is the "Seven Domains of Women's Health" with Dr. Kirtly Jones on The Scope.

Dr. Jones: It feels like hard times. Even though there's evidence that people on the planet are less hungry, less threatened by violence, and less poor than ever before, it just feels like hard times. When people feel threatened, they can respond with anger, anxiety, and violence. These emotions are associated with an increase in blood pressure, a less effective immune system, poorer health, and overall unhappiness, and these bad health outcomes not only affect them but the people around them.

Is there another more adaptive response, a more healthy, mindful practice? Practice kindness. Yes, this sounds sort of woo-woo, granola, crunchy, pop psychology, but there are historical and religious traditions that support the behavior of kindness. Other words for kindness include generosity, nurturance, compassion, and altruistic love, but kindness is simple and easy.

The tradition of kindness goes far back in Western traditions all the way to the Greek "agape" or love that is patient, humble, generous, caring, and forgiving. It's present in all of the major world's religions, and it's so ever-present that we must have evolved with it. It must be good for us. It must have evolved to help us be a social species. It is present in children at an early age and it may be inheritable. Certainly, it can be taught and modeled in family life. A wonderful textbook and handbook called "Character Strengths and Virtues" has a whole chapter on kindness. The authors agreed that it's important but difficult to measure in psychological surveys, as it's self-reported.

"Are you a kind person?" "Well, of course, I am." And people want to believe that they are kind even if their inner dialogues and outer behaviors would suggest otherwise. It's also known that people who are in positive moods are more likely to feel and act kindly than people in a negative mood. So it's a little hard to know if practicing kindness makes people feel better or the people who feel better practice kindness.

Enter the randomized trials, there are a lot of them. In an experiment with 139 working adults, half were randomly assigned to begin a practice of loving-kindness meditation. Results showed that this meditation practice produced increases over time in positive emotions which in turn produced increases in a wide range of healthful outcomes, increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms. In turn, these could lead to increased life satisfaction and reduce depressive symptoms.

Other studies randomized people to mindfulness training or structured breathing or loving-kindness meditation. The evidence suggests that loving-kindness meditation makes a little bit bigger impact on positive mood. There are neurophysiologic studies that suggest that practicing kindness decreases the manifestations of stress. Neuroimaging studies suggest that loving-kindness meditation and compassion meditation may enhance activation of brain areas that are involved in emotional processing and empathy. Some studies support using these practices as they may provide potentially useful strategies for helping people with problems that involve interpersonal problems such as depression, social anxiety, marital conflict, anger, and coping with the strains of long-term caregiving.

So how do you practice kindness? The web is full of suggestions of acts of kindness, but you could start with the very simple practice of thinking kindness. You can do this anytime. You can do this instead of worrying as you're trying to get to sleep. It's a kind of meditation or mindfulness practice but it's easier and perhaps more natural than structured breathing. Of course, you can jump in and practice random or not random acts of kindness, and that would be great for you and your community, but you can start with thinking kindly about someone you love. It could be your child, your parent, your friend, or your beloved dog. Imagine holding them next to you, next to your heart. Too hard? They weigh 300 pounds or it's a Burmese Mountain dog?

Well, imagine they are a baby sea otter and you're the mom holding them on your chest. You can YouTube that and smile. Think in your mind, direct this thought to them. "May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you live with ease and happiness." Keep saying this in your head several times. If you have several people you love, send it to them.

The next part's a little harder for many of us but it's worth doing. Imagine that person you love is standing next to you and sending you love, saying it to you. "May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you live with ease and happiness."

Kindness to yourself may be the very first place to start, but it can be harder as we don't always feel kindly toward ourselves. Almost all of us have some being that we love and that's the easiest place to start. Do this every day. The randomized trials suggest that the more you do it, the better you get, sort of kind of like a kindness exercise developing your kindness muscles. Of course, the next step once you've accomplished at imaging kindness to people you love and to yourself, would be to send it out to people you don't love, and then to people you don't know, and then to practice acts of kindness.

Start with baby steps, baby. Oh, yes, and those four domains improved by kindness? Physical health, social health, emotional health, and spiritual health. And thanks for joining us in "The Seven Domains" on The Scope.

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