Most of us know that displaying kindness and giving to others feels good. But now there’s research that says kindness can actually rewire our brain in a way that contributes to both emotional and physical well-being.
According to researcher and author Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “The biggest news is that we’re able to change something physical about people’s health by increasing their daily diet of positive emotion.”
In a recent study published in Psychology Science, it is suggested that the link between kindness, happiness and better health may “follow the path of the vagus nerve, which connects social contact to the positive emotions that flow from interactions.”
The vagus nerve regulates how efficiently the heart rate changes with breathing. The greater its tone, the lower the risk for cardiovascular disease and other dangers. It may also help regulate glucose levels and immune responses.
What’s even more relevant is that the vagus nerve is tied to the release of oxytocin, an important hormone in social bonding. A higher vagal tone has been linked with greater closeness to others and selfless behavior. Performing acts of kindness for others often leaves us with that “warm fuzzy feeling”—that’s oxytocin at work.
Kindness may slow aging
Two culprits that speed the aging process and play a role in heart disease are free radicals and inflammation. Both are a product of unhealthy lifestyle choices.
But we now know that oxytocin actually reduces the levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardiovascular system, slowing aging at the source. A kind-hearted gesture can have positive effects on the heart.
Kindness can improve relationships
It may seem obvious that kindness can improve relationships since we tend to like people who show us kindness, but there is a strong emotional connection between people who are kind to one another.
That’s because kindness actually reduces the emotional distance between two people, making them both feel more bonded. In fact, the genetic connection to kindness is so strong between humans that we are virtually “wired” for kindness.
When we are kind to each other, we feel a stronger emotional link, which helps us deepen relationships and cultivate new ones.
Kindness has the power to transform communities
Research shows that kindness can have a domino effect. James Fowler, associate professor of political science at University of California San Diego and Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard sociology professor, “showed that when one person gave money in a ‘public-goods game’ to help others, the recipients were more likely to give money away in the future.”
This chain reaction continued as more people were involved in the wave of kindness, according to the researchers.
“Though the multiplier in the real world may be higher or lower than what we’ve found in the lab, personally it’s very exciting to learn that kindness spreads to people I don’t know or have never met,” Fowler said. “We don’t typically see how our generosity cascades through the social network to affect the lives of dozens or maybe hundreds of other people.”
This makes the concept of “paying it forward” with kindness and generosity more powerful than ever.
Spread kindness on World Kindness Day
Boost your emotional and physical health with a small act of kindness on November 13, World Kindness Day! Share your random act of kindness and join the conversation on social media using #WorldKindnessDay #KindnessDay #WKD.