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Is Kindness The Secret To Better Health? (+ 3 Ways To Be Kind Today)

Kelli Harding, M.D., MPH
Psychiatrist & Author By Kelli Harding, M.D., MPH
Psychiatrist & Author
Kelli Harding, M.D., MPH earned her degrees from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. She is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and author of The Rabbit Effect.
Is Kindness The Secret To Better Health? (+ 3 Ways To Be Kind Today)

There is a revolution going on in medicine.

Until recently, most people thought about staying healthy in terms of lifestyle choices such as diet, exercise, sleep, and the occasional doctor's visit. While access to quality medical care remains critical, ample research shows that what happens in hospitals and clinics is just a small piece of the larger well-being puzzle. We now know that kindness is critical to physical health.

And we know this, in part, because of some snuggly rabbits.

The rabbit-health connection.

In the late 1970s, researchers were trying to understand the relationship between diet and heart health. So scientist Robert Nerem, Ph.D., and his team designed a very straightforward experiment: They gave nearly genetically identical rabbits the same high-fat diet. At the end of the study, the team expected all the measures of health to be the same for all the rabbits. 

Surprisingly, one group had far better (60% better, in fact) health markers than the others. There was no clear biological explanation for the difference. It turns out, the difference was in the researchers. It seemed the rabbits that fared better were all cared for by the same researcher, a particularly kind and caring individual. She wasn't just feeding the rabbits kibble. She picked them up, pet them, and talked to them. In other words, she showed them kindness. 

So the team repeated the experiment but this time with tightly controlled conditions and got the same startling results. Kindness made all the difference.


 How kindness affects health.  

Since Nerem's study, four decades of population research has shown that our social world is the major determinate of our health. Meanwhile, good medical care likely only accounts for 10 to 20% of our overall health status. As I describe in my book, The Rabbit Effect, the vast majority of our health is determined by how we are treated in our day-to-day lives at home, in relationships, in workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and the broader community.  

And it comes down to kindness and positive connections with others.

Kindness influences health and aging on a microscopic cellular level. For example, welcome physical contact, like a supportive hug from a loved one, releases a cascade of feel-good hormones like oxytocin and serotonin. It also protects against infections. One study exposed 400 healthy volunteers to the cold virus and found those who received daily hugs were 32% less likely to get sick. Even those who got sick, but received hugs, didn't get as sick for as long. 

Increasing research shows repeated kindness, such as the TLC a parent offers a child, alters gene expression through a process known as epigenetics. In other words, the DNA itself doesn't change, but how the genetic code is translated does. In this way, supportive relationships and environments help people live longer and better.  

Exciting advances in genetics show that the protective DNA caps called telomeres extend or shorten in response to supportive or stressful relationships and environments. Longer telomere buffers are associated with longer life span and reduced incidence of disease.

Positive relationships buffer stress, which improves immune functioning, blood pressure, mood, and recovery after injury. In fact, an 80-year longitudinal Harvard Study of adult development found that the biggest predictor of a long healthy life wasn't money, fame, intelligence, or even genes—it was the strength of participants' relationships. Another study that followed 1,138 healthy older adults over time found social activity in itself (controlling for other factors) appears protective for brain functioning and lowered dementia risk by as much as 70%. 

Just as positive relationships reduce cortisol, inflammation, and pain, we know that chronic loneliness is a significant risk factor for illness. It increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and premature death and is as significant a risk factor to health as well-established risk factors such as smoking, alcoholism, high blood pressure, or obesity. 

The exciting news is that every day each of us has the opportunity to increase kindness and connection in all areas of our lives.

3 ways to practice more kindness in your life.

While in my book I describe hundreds of ideas for kindness, here are a few to get you started:

1. Say "Thanks."

Think about a time someone was unexpectedly kind to you. Maybe it was a friend by your side when you needed one, or a colleague who supported your work unprompted, or a casserole from a neighbor when you were sick. Think about how the kindness made you feel—likely cared for, supported, and loved. Now consider saying thanks for that kindness via a text, call, or handwritten note. 

There is no statute of limitations for a thank you, even if it's been a long time. An attitude of gratitude is one of the fastest ways to strengthen your relationships at home, work, school, and beyond. Plus, side effects may include improved sleep, better well-being, reduced inflammation, and even lower blood sugar

Be intentional about thanking people who help you throughout the day, including cabdrivers, waiters, custodial staff, and cashiers. Their hard work often goes unrecognized.  

2. Say yes to face-to-face time.

We're in an unprecedented relationship with technology. And time spent staring at an iPhone often eclipses time spent looking in the eyes of another human being. So be intentional about connecting with others around you. While this may mean your partner or kids, evidence suggests that every bit of social contact counts to boost happiness

So don't let opportunities to connect with people around you pass you by. While this may mean putting away your phone more intentionally at dinner, it also can include striking up a conversation with a neighbor, the person next to you in line, or a co-worker. When you make a point of building positive relationships with the people around you, it makes your neighborhood, school, or workplace feel like a kinder and more supportive place. Little actions count.   


3. Sign up to volunteer.

Doing good helps us feel good. Studies show that volunteers live longer. For instance, adults over the age of 65 who volunteered with two or more organizations were at a significantly reduced risk of death compared to non-volunteering peers. Evidence shows people who volunteer regularly are also stronger, sharper, and happier. Those who report participating for selfless reasons appear to get an extra health boost. This may relate to evidence showing that cultivating meaning, feeling useful, and having a sense purpose boosts our physical and mental health as well. Plus, striving to make a positive difference in the world is associated with reduced risk of heart attacks and stroke. So find something that makes you feel good and go for it!       

It starts with you.  

Our social world is dynamic. Your kind actions brighten the day of another who may brighten the day of another and so on and so on. Kindness creates a ripple effect of good. 

We all participate in this interactive fluid system during every moment of our lives. The hug you give your partner in the morning may affect how they treat another driver on the road on the way to work, which may affect how that person treats a co-worker at the office. In turn, that co-worker may be in a better mood at home with her family that evening and affect how well her kids sleep that night. Each small decision to be kind can boost well-being or aggravate stress levels in ourselves and others. And it's in our control.

Practicing kindness has virtues in its own right. But it's great to know kindness is also the healthy choice as well. So think about reaching out to a friend today who may need some extra support. 

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