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She was sixteen, thin from malnourishment, and alone. In 1939, my mother returned to the U.S. after four years in China, where her father had sent her to live in his ancestral village to keep her cheaply while he paid down debts.
When she returned to San Francisco, her eyes widened when she learned her proof of citizenship had not yet arrived at the Port. Officials hauled her away to the prison-like immigrant detention center on Angel Island for possible deportation. But just before they took her, she appealed to the ship's cook.
"Please, sir, I am being detained. Can you help me?"
He agreed and delivered the message to her family in Chinatown when he got off work. The next day, her uncle straightened out the paperwork. She entered the U.S., and I am alive to tell the tale.
Mom never saw that cook again nor learned his name, yet his small act of kindness, his willingness to go a little out of his way for a stranger, made a difference in my mother's life.
No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another. -- Charles Dickens
Survival of the Kindest
When we think of Darwin's Theory of Evolution, we usually think of "survival of the fittest," yet Darwin never used those words. Herbert Spencer, a contemporary philosopher, coined the phrase when he used Darwin's work to justify his theory of the superiority of different classes and races.
Did you know that "survival of the kindest" better captures Darwin's thinking? Darwin considered kindness one of our most valuable instincts, the one that makes it possible for humanity to survive as a species. He reasoned that communities with sympathetic members achieved greater success in raising more offspring to the age of reproduction.
Five Ways Kindness Will Make You Healthier
Research shows that kindness helps not just the person to whom we are kind. It improves our own physical and mental health.
Kindness Makes Us Happy
In an online world, we may think we connect through a text message or an emoji, but our bodies are built for a physical tribe. When we are kind in person, such as by volunteering at the food bank, welcoming a stranger, or hugging a troubled friend, we feel a natural high. We have the spiritual satisfaction of making a difference.
Amid pandemic, in-person kindness is challenging, but there are ways! I drop off bags of books at my father's senior residence. My daughters distribute boxed take-out meals for the homeless at our church. And there are those, like this postal worker, who brighten someone's day just by waving through a window.
Kindness Improves Our Physical Health
When we are kind, we produce the hormone oxytocin, which plays a significant role in the cardiovascular system. It causes the release of nitric oxide, which expands our blood vessels and brings blood pressure down. Kindness, then, is good for our heart.
And while it may seem counter-intuitive to those looking after children at home these days, actively caring for others can reduce our stress levels. We have evolved to look after helpless babies and children, so our biology ensures that it feels good.
However, this doesn't just apply to being kind to offspring. Our stress goes down when we are kind to others as well, such as friends and neighbors.
Finally, kindness improves immunity. Research demonstrates that white blood cells, which fight off bacteria and viruses, increase in our bodies when we are kind. In the age of COVID, this is positive news.
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Kindness Helps Us Live Longer
Remember that heart-healthy oxytocin? This hormone also reduces free radicals and inflammation and so slows aging at the source.
Kindness also gives our life purpose. When we help others, life has meaning, and we naturally want to take better care of it. We become more motivated to care for ourselves, such as through preventive health care.
Kindness Improves Our Relationships
This one is obvious, but it bears repeating. We like people who are kind to us. If we want to reduce the emotional distance between ourselves and someone else, an act of goodwill helps.
Our ancestors had to cooperate to survive. The more they bonded, the better their chances. Kindness became etched into our genes.
The Butterfly Effect
In chaos theory, a butterfly flapping its wings weeks ago metaphorically influences the tornado that is happening today. Similarly, it turns out that when we're kind, we inspire others. Research shows that it creates a ripple effect that typically spreads to three degrees of separation; in other words, to our friend's friend's friends.
In one study, an anonymous 28-year-old walked into a clinic and donated a kidney that set off a pay-it-forward effect where spouses or family members of kidney recipients donated a kidney. This "domino effect," as the New England Journal of Medicine called it, spanned the entire United States. Ten people received a new kidney because of that first donor.
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How Can We Be Kind?
So how can we be kind? Here are three broad categories:
Giving of our Time and Talents
We can give of our time and talents freely.
- We can listen and be fully present when someone is talking.
- We can smile.
- We can pause to hold open the door for someone behind us.
- We can pay a genuine compliment.
- We can help someone get needed rest, such as by cooking or running errands.
- We can volunteer.
- We can speak words of encouragement.
When I returned to ballet after having children, I wanted to also return to performing. However, I felt old compared to the young dancers in the company that I was interested in and not in the same shape as before becoming a mom.
A friend encouraged me, reminding me that I still had a lot of ability and that it wouldn't hurt to inquire. Thanks to her, I plucked up courage and spoke to the director, who encouraged me to audition. I got a part! I went on to perform for years afterward. My friend's words changed my life.
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Giving of our Treasure
We can give of our treasure.
- We can donate to a good cause.
- We can pay for someone behind us in line.
- We can contribute a nourishing meal to a grieving family.
- We can give a meaningful gift, such as by bringing home flowers, loaning a good book, dropping off cookies, or whatever seems best.
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Giving Our Touch
We can touch someone. Wait, what? Hear me out. I don't mean unwanted touch. However, the pandemic has made painfully clear how much we have taken for granted physical connection and being close. Standing six feet away, not shaking hands, not hugging, seeing people through a computer screen instead of in person – it feels awkward.
Past studies have shown that seemingly insignificant touches resulted in higher tips for waitresses and that strangers were more likely to help someone if a touch accompanied the request. Often in these studies, people didn't even remember being touched. They just felt there was a connection, and they liked that person more.
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If the brush of a hand while delivering a bill can help us all get along better, it is likely because when you stimulate pressure receptors in the skin, you lower stress hormones. Even when we are alone, we may massage our temples or rub our necks. Studies show that self-massage slows the heart and lowers stress.
Right now is the time of social distancing. But we can still hold our pet or comfort a loved one in our household. I know some parents rub their children's backs at bedtime.
In my home, my eldest daughter likes me to rub her feet when I wake her up. She'll be under covers, but she'll poke her feet out at me. My youngest likes to give me big bear hugs and pretend she's going to pick me up, then busts out laughing from the pretend effort.
However you do it, touch is a bonding opportunity where wonderful things happen that you can't see. Oxytocin levels go up, and the heart rate goes down for both parties because touching is reciprocal.
If my husband sees me stressed, he knows he only needs to start scratching my head, and the grump goes out of me. It's almost comical – like calming a nervous cat.
Do It Now
"I shall pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again." -- Stephen Grellet, prominent French-American Quaker missionary
However you choose to show kindness, whether by speaking encouragement, preparing a meal for a tired new mother, pausing to hug your partner when she's stressed, or donating to a food bank, know that it will benefit both you and the recipient. And it will give your life meaning.
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