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The Untold Value of Kindness:
Practical (and Surprising) Reasons to Be a Nicer Person

The erosion of kindness, at least in the United States, may be one of the top issues facing the United States. It's easy to come up with a list of very public signs of this erosion, from the countless mud-slinging political commercials leading up to the recent elections to increasing polarity and tensions among political parties.

cheer up

"The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up."
-Mark Twain

That kindness is becoming more of a rarity -- that there is a "lack of kindness" epidemic, if you will -- is no secret outside of the political arena, either. Shoppers pushing by one another at the supermarket, rather than saying "excuse me;" more tailgating and people cutting each other off on the road; increases in bullying at schoolyards ... the list can go on and on.

There are many obvious social reasons to be kind. There are other less obvious but very practical reasons as well, though, and perhaps if these reasons were more widely known, the kindness bug may come back into fashion.

Why Be Kind?

Being kind is not totally altruistic. It actually has a lot of benefits for the giver, as doing kind deeds is healthy.

One of the largest studies of kindness was conducted by Allan Luks, former executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of Health and author of the book "The Healing Power of Doing Good."

He surveyed over 3,000 volunteers about how they felt when they did a kind act, and found that those who helped others had better health.

"Helping contributes to the maintenance of good health, and it can diminish the effect of diseases and disorders both serious and minor, psychological and physical," Luks said.

Among the most significant of Luks' findings was a "helper's high" that 95 percent of the volunteers reported feeling. The "helper's high" reduced stress and released endorphins, the body's natural painkillers. After the high subsided, volunteers reported feeling an extended period of improved emotional well-being.

kindness giving sharing help

Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?' "
- Martin Luther King Jr.

"This feeling of well-being is critically important," Luks said. "Studies have documented the fact that raising a person's perceived health status leads to reductions in stress that can create actual health improvements. Most important for the purposes of this study, respondents to the helping survey frequently dated the perceived improvement in their health to the beginning of their helping efforts."

Other findings of Luks' study included that helping:

  • Reverses feelings of depression, hostility, isolation and helplessness

  • Enhances feelings of joy, self-worth, emotional resilience and optimism

  • Decreases the awareness and the intensity of physical pain

  • Supports the immune system

In helping to support the immune system, Luks says it's possible that the act of helping may even slow the progress of cancer and other illnesses. He says:

"All we know at this point is that different states of mind do affect the immune system, which is responsible for resisting the growth of a tumor. But there is no proven relationship of these attitudes to either getting cancer or being able to fight it. On the other hand, some initial research reveals a possible link. Helping behaviors produce the kinds of emotions and the stress reduction that might, according to these studies, slow the progress of cancer.

Case in point: Research by psychologist Sandra Levy found that joyfulness -- defined as emotional resilience and vigor -- was the second most important predictor of survival time for a group of women with recurring breast cancer. Helping can enhance our feelings of joyfulness and reduce the unhealthy sense of isolation."

A "Biological Reward for Doing the Right Thing"

Dr. Paul Ka'ikena Pearsall, author of "The Pleasure Prescription," has done interesting work in a field known as psychoneuroimmunology (PNI).

PNI looks into the relationship between behaviors, psychosocial factors, and the body, and its resistance to disease. His book is based on an ancient Polynesian concept known as "Aloha," which encompasses five principles (patience, unity, agreement, humility and kindness) as the cornerstones of physical and emotional well-being.

"Over the last three decades, PNI has documented remarkable new ways in which we can fight off disease and heal when we are sick. In just three decades, it has amassed dramatic -- albeit incomplete -- evidence of what the Polynesians already knew: that psychological factors influence the body's ability to control symptoms and recover from catastrophic illness," says Pearsall.

kindness goodness

"Goodness is the only investment which never fails."
- Henry David Thoreau

"Akahai," or kindness, particularly when it involves strangers, has benefits for the immune system and for healing, according to Pearsall.

"In concrete terms, there seems to be a biological reward for doing the right thing," he says.

Kindness is Catchy

One thing's for certain: with all the benefits kindness lends to mind and body, a kind society stands to reap major rewards. And, it seems, kindness has a way of catching on.

The Seattle Times recently reported on just that. From patrons at a local restaurant randomly paying for another diner's meal, someone buying someone else a coffee at Starbucks, and a man handing out free bottled water and juice to visitors at a local beach, kindness evokes more kindness.

According to one woman who had a dinner bought for her by an anonymous, kind stranger, ""I told my friends about it and the first thing they said was they'd like to do something like that. So it spreads."

And although society is riddled with "what's in it for me" relationships, which certainly have their place, we can all strive to do some kind acts without expecting anything in return.

"In the modern world, we have a lot of relationships that provide reciprocal benefits: I'll scratch your back and you scratch mine ... those sorts of contractual relationships," says William Talbott, philosophy professor at the University of Washington.

But, he continues, "We can say, 'I just want to do something good for you without the expectation of getting anything in return at all.' And what a thrill it is to be on either side of that statement -- the giver or the receiver."

Recommended Reading

How (and Why) to Teach Kids to Care: What Amazing New Studies Suggest

How to Drop the Drama and Master the Art of Loving Simply in Seven Easy Steps


The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation

The Seattle Times

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