Practicing kindness to others (and to yourself) has been linked to better stress management, improved heart health, and even living longer.
You know that showing someone kindness can make you feel good inside. But you may not know that there’s scientific research that suggests that those warm, fuzzy feelings are also good for your long-term health and well-being.
“Small acts of kindness are an essential and often overlooked component of health,” says Kelli Harding, MD, MPH, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City and the author of The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier With the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness.
Kindness is when we do something to benefit someone else — and, as the American Psychological Association explains, it’s usually thought of as motivated by truly wanting to help someone, not by fear of punishment or an attempt to get an explicit reward in exchange for your behavior. Kindness can also be practiced toward ourselves, which is self-kindness.
Both kindness toward others and kindness toward yourself benefits your health and well-being. Here are some of the various ways.
1. Kindness Is an Antidote to Stress
Short bursts of stress aren’t bad — your body is primed for them (such as when you’re working on a tight deadline or you run to catch a train you’re late for). Stress, when chronic, however, can increase risk of several health problems, including anxiety and depression, heart disease, sleep problems, and cognitive dysfunction, among other effects, according to Mayo Clinic. One way to ease those feelings of angst? Kindness.
“On an individual level, kindness buffers stress,” Dr. Harding says. “It lowers cortisol and blood pressure, reduces pain, anxiety, depression, and boosts our immune system.”
One review concluded that kindness promotes generosity, connection with others, and a feeling of inclusion, which ultimately can improve your resilience against stress. It’s not that practicing kindness eliminates the stressor itself (it can’t, for instance, make your deadline go away); but regularly practicing kindness bolsters your ability to cope and respond more calmly to stressors that show up.
Ultimately, the authors note that kindness can be used as a tool to manage stress alongside other common practices, such as meditation, exercise, and therapy.
2. Kindness Can Help With Anxiety and Depression
Being good to others can go a long way in supporting your own mental health — and so can directing that kindness toward yourself.
In one study, practicing meditation that promotes positivity and kindness for yourself and others (rather than anger or self-loathing) was found to be effective in helping treat depression and social anxiety alone or when included in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a standard-of-care treatment.
3. Kindness May Improve Heart Health
Those who have psychological well-being — defined as having purpose in life, optimism, and happiness — have a lower likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease, research suggests. And practicing kindness (along with other things like identifying personal strengths and recalling positive life experiences) is a measure of this type of well-being.
Having a positive outlook, which can be affected by kindness, may encourage good health habits, buffer the effects of stress, and improve metabolic health, all of which protect your heart, the authors explain.
“Kindness creates positive social connection, which is known to lower blood pressure, cortisol, and stress,” Harding adds. One act of kindness isn’t enough though, she notes. “Humans do best with daily doses of social support, aka kindness. I wish I could prescribe giving and receiving daily kindness for all my patients.”
4. Kindness May Help With Diabetes Management
When blood sugar isn’t properly controlled and you’re dealing with one of the many complications that can arise from the disease, you may find that your mood suffers. A curious thing happens, though, when you use self-compassion, which means treating oneself with kindness and understanding when faced with difficult emotions.
According to research, people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes who practiced self-compassion for eight weeks had reduced depression scores and distress associated with their diseases — and they also decreased their A1C scores (a measure of blood sugar control over a three month period). Self-kindness may decrease stress hormones (which can otherwise elevate blood sugar) and soothe your nervous system, which may affect blood sugar, the researchers say.
5. Kindness Can Help People With Cancer Feel Supported
Kindness helps the giver and receiver. People who had early-stage breast cancer and performed random acts of kindness to others said they felt more social support, as it may help strengthen connections with others, make people feel more connected, and increase one’s social circle, according to one study.
“People feel and function better, even with serious illnesses such as cancer, when they have kindness and positive social support in their lives,” says Harding. “The more buffers for negative stress we create with kindness, the healthier we feel even with tough diseases or challenges that arise,” she says.
6. Kindness Promotes Happiness
Being kind — and recognizing when you are acting kind — may increase your happiness. Past research has found that when participants kept track of their own kind behavior toward other people and counted the number of kind acts they did each day for a week, they reported feeling happier compared with a control group who didn’t track their kindness.
Keeping track can help you in another way: More recent research found that people who performed kindness activities for seven days — whether targeted toward friends and family, strangers, or themselves — reported a boost in happiness. And the kinder they were (measured in terms of the more acts of kindness performed), the happier they were.
7. Kindness May Help You Live Longer
There are a few different areas of research that suggest kindness can help you live longer.
First, kindness can help foster a sense of purpose, says Harding. “People with a sense of purpose are more likely to live longer and have significantly lower the risk of heart disease, strokes, and dementia,” she says.
One study of nearly 13,000 adults over age 50 found that those who had the highest sense of purpose had a 46 percent lower risk of mortality, as well as more optimism and less loneliness.
Kindness may also impact an important marker of health in the body, called telomeres. Telomeres are part of our DNA and play a role in cell growth (and ultimately the body carrying out basic everyday functioning) — and the length of them is an important biological marker that is one aspect indicating how our bodies are aging. A study published in 2019 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology showed that just a six-week workshop on cultivating kindness through loving-kindness meditation helped protect telomeres — and that may slow the biological aging process.
While protecting telomeres will not, of course, let you live forever, there’s no question that interventions to protect your telomeres are helpful to your overall health, says Jeffrey Brantley, MD, a psychiatrist specializing in the health benefits of meditation, including loving-kindness meditation and a coauthor on the Psychoneuroendocrionology study.
Interestingly, Dr. Brantley says, this particular study found that participants who did a more general mindfulness meditation did not show the same health benefit in terms of telomere length — it was only seen in those who were specifically focusing on kindness.