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Writing by Ana Dorta

Yhen we walk into our local coffee shop every morning, some of us take the time to wish the cashier a good day, while others might saunter out without saying anything. But while a simple act of kindness like wishing someone well may seem purposeless and trivial, both anecdotal and scientific discoveries demonstrate the benefits that these small acts can have. 

When you engage in acts of kindness, it releases “feel-good chemicals” in your brain, including oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine.

“These feel-good chemicals help reduce stress levels, boost immunity, diminish rates of anxiety and depression, and they can enhance the quality of your sleep,” explains Kelli Harding, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and author of “The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness.” “It probably relates to the underlying modulation of the immune system.”

Harding’s book, which was released at the end of 2020, explores what is considered groundbreaking research about how the health impacts of love, friendship, community and our environment can be greater than medical intervention. 

What is kindness?

Defining kindness is quite simple. 

“Kindness is an expression of emotional interest in others,” explains Stephen Post, Ph.D., who is the director of the Center for Medical Humanities Compassionate Care and Bioethics in the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. “Kindness is not complicated; that’s why parents say to their children, ‘Do you think you could be a little kinder?”’ 

Post, the co-author of “Why Good Things Happen to Good People,” has funded over 50 scientific studies and conducted his own research about the “life-enhancing benefits of giving.” He lectures on the concept of “give and live better” across the globe, and he believes that if we “give meaningfully and live by the Golden Rule, we are generally happier, healthier, more resilient, more creative, more hopeful and more successful.”  

We humans are prosocial; our relationships and how we interact with people we see on a day-to-day basis significantly impact how we feel overall.  

“Kindness impacts every area of your health, from what’s happening in your home and neighborhood to your schools and workplaces, and it also impacts our greater society,” says Harding. “It also affects how we deal with challenges that arise, not just towards others but towards ourselves. Kindness makes all the difference in difficult situations.”

The benefits of kindness

We often feel closest to certain people in our lives because the relationship is built on reciprocal kindness.

“In general, in any functional society, kindness is going to be well received and is going to benefit the person who is being kind,” Post says. “People who are kind will have more social opportunities; they are probably going to do better in school.”

While kindness helps improve our perception of social connectivity, even more importantly, there are concrete physical benefits to our health as well. 

“It involves the mesolimbic pathway of the brain; that’s the part of the brain that’s associated with connectivity, care and helping activities,” Post explains. “That whole axis, which involves certain hormones like oxytocin and other feel good chemicals, even dopamine—when that’s active, the negative pathways in the brain turn off.”

This mood improvement is referenced in psychology as the “helper’s high.”  People who volunteer often feel sentiments like happiness and gratification, and they might also feel as though their life has more meaning.

Add a new daily supplement: say hello to a stranger.

While exercise and healthy eating are important, if you want to be happier, consider incorporating acts of kindness more frequently into your daily routine. 

“Medical care is absolutely critical for our physical well-being, and it probably only accounts for around 10 to 20 percent of our overall health status,” says Harding. “Our genes play a role in that, but it turns out not as much as we thought; the social world has an impact on our genes as well. So you don’t necessarily need a white coat to make the world a happier and healthier place. It starts with an act of kindness, quite frankly.” 

Unlike wellness supplements, there is no dosage or prescription for how frequently we should implement acts of kindness. 

“The best metric is to ask yourself how you feel,” Harding explains. “If you feel good doing the act of generosity, then keep doing it. You actually have a lot of intuition as to what feels kind to you and what doesn’t.” 

When we choose to engage in friendly or kind acts, others often reciprocate. 

“I was on a flight today, and a generator blew on the plane,” says Harding. “The pilot came on to tell us we needed to make an emergency landing. As you can imagine, people were panicking. As soon as the announcement was made, everyone started talking to each other. My seatmate and I had a lovely conversation about our jobs and families. The kindness of a stranger was really comforting and made a stressful situation much more manageable.”

Post says there are several major expressions of kindness, so try out different ones until you discover what feels best for you. These include: forgiveness, mirth, carefrontation, helping, celebration, respect, compassion, creativity, loyalty, and listening to others.

Kindness in action

“It may be something as simple as looking someone in the eyes and saying hello, asking a cashier how their day is going or lending a helping hand,” Harding explains. “It’s these little, tiny human moments that really add up.” 

Creativity can also be an expression of kindness. Post says this is how his wife practices kindness.

“My wife works in the local grade school, and she spends a lot of time putting together posters for the bulletin board,” he says. That’s her way of being kind.” 

When choosing to implement kindness into your daily routine, consider what speaks to you and is meaningful. 

“Often, when people are doing kind acts, it really ties into where they find meaning during the day,” Harding explains. ”There’s also some really exciting research around how purpose can boost our health too. It’s estimated that it can help us live seven healthy years longer.” 

In practice today

Harding says the effects of our kindness ripple, and even simple acts can benefit our personal wellness and aid our community. 

A 2023 study from the University of Ohio found that individuals who displayed symptoms of depression and anxiety felt better after participating in acts of kindness. The researchers believe this is because these acts helped them “take their minds off their own symptoms.” 

“Kindness benefits the receiver, the giver, and, this is the awesome part, the observer,” Harding explains. “It’s not just the two people who are involved necessarily, but it’s also the others who see it. Every single reader who reads your article can actually decide for themselves to make a positive difference in the world.”

This article was published in the  May/June 2024 print edition of Connect to Northern Westchester.

Ana Dorta

Ana Dorta is a Westchester native and recent graduate of Washington and Lee University, where she completed a degree in strategic communication and Spanish. She is a passionate writer and book-lover, having also recently attended the Columbia Publishing Course, where she furthered her capabilities in written expression. In her free time, she loves to explore the outdoors and play and coach basketball.