Episode 258: Kindness as Wellness
You’re listening to episode number 258: Kindness as Wellness.
Alumni Summit at Penn
Today’s episode is fun because I just got back from my first alumni summit at the University of Pennsylvania. I spent the weekend with over a hundred other students who’ve graduated from the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at Penn.
And this is an annual summit. The program is now in its 19th year. They’ve been hosting this annual summit, I think, for that entire time, bringing people back together to update them on the research in the field of positive psychology. Of course, bringing people together to support and encourage one another in their current career and Personal pursuits and have a chance to get back together like a reunion.
It was fun, especially being so close to the program that I, have very vivid memories of all the experiences that I had last year when I was a student, which included needing to pay an attention to write papers and journals about the event itself.
This year, it felt like a huge relief to be able to sit in the crowd and enjoy listening to these world-renowned researchers come in and share some of their updated studies, the things that they’re interested in right now, the questions that they’re asking and to be surrounded by people who are as enthusiastic about helping others live their best life as I have been.
One of my favorite presentations was given by Sonja Lyubomirsky who is one of the world-renowned researchers on happiness itself. On flourishing and what it means to live a good life. She has a fantastic book that’s available. I’ll link it in the show notes. It’s called The How of Happiness.
In the book she takes you through a lot of her studies in easy-to-understand language, talking about some of the things that we’ve learned, that she’s learned through her research over the last few decades, about the types of things make people happier.
One of the elements that she talked about her recent research that seemed so simple and so beautiful was the many benefits of kindness. How simple. Kind acts towards others and how they increase our overall well-being in addition to many specific and targeted elements for our health and being.
Segment: Loving Kindness Meditation
I’m excited to share some of those findings with you today. And to get us started, I’m going to do a quick segment that I call a mindful moment. This is a loving kindness meditation that was designed by the Greater Good Science Center. A lot of you have probably heard about meditation and imagined it as sitting in silence or listening to some gentle music while you try to control your thoughts.
In contrast, the loving kindness meditation is a guided meditation that takes you through a guided journey of Recognizing and imagining and feeling some of the good feelings that you have for people who are close to you in your life and sending that love and kindness out to them into the world.
Loving kindness meditations like this one have shown to increase your positive emotions, enhance your empathy and compassion, reduce depression and anxiety, build self-esteem, and enhance your social connections in addition to other incredible benefits.
Go ahead and find yourself in a comfortable position where you can pay attention and listen and imagine for just a few minutes with me.
This meditation may be easiest if you’re seated or lying down. If you’re driving or otherwise occupied in a way that you can’t focus for a few minutes, maybe pause, and return to it later when you need a little boost in your mood. To help you focus and gain some initial stability, bring your attention to your breath, the breath at your belly.
Inhale and notice all the sensations of the breath coming into your lungs, expanding through your belly, through that diaphragm. Exhale and notice the sensations of your breath as it moves out of your body.
Let’s do a couple more of those inhales and exhales.
Now we’re going to shift into a practice of joy. Recalling someone who you really believe has your best intentions and interests in their heart. This might be someone who’s extended kindness and support to you. It could be someone you know now, or someone from your past, a friend. A family member, teacher, or colleague, choose one person and bring them to mind as though they were seated right in front of you, smiling at you.
Imagine them wishing for you to be happy and fulfilled. For you to have a life that is flourishing. You can see this beaming towards you in their smile and their eyes. With your next couple breaths, inhale and draw in the intention of goodness. In meditation and visualization, we can generate positive emotional states right here and now, as we might experience the world as if this person were truly next to us.
Simply through your mind and imagination, you may call upon this valuable resource. So, for the next couple breaths, continue to take in this wish of wellness and happiness and joy from a person who cherishes you.
Now begin to let go of that image. Notice in your body if there’s any feelings of warmth or goodness. Ways that you can identify what it’s like to feel this wish of happiness for you. Relax into these sensations and feelings for just a couple breaths.
Now. With this feeling of support and happiness, you can extend a boost of joy to others. Recall someone from your life who really could use an extra boost, a friend, a family member, a colleague, and again bring them to mind vividly as if they were right in front of you, without too many stories or thoughts or ideas about this person.
Call upon the experience of simply wishing them happiness, extending joy and fulfillment to them. As you inhale, draw in this intention, and as you exhale, wish this person happiness, fulfillment, and joy. Let’s do it twice more. Inhale the intention, and exhale sending it out.
Begin to release the image of this person. And once again, just notice the sensations in your own body associated with wishing someone else well, generating and extending joy.
Let’s bring this practice to a close with three long inhales and exhales together.
Thank you for breathing with me today.
Kindness as Wellness
Last week I talked about three different roads to happiness. Happiness three ways. And most of the episode focused on self, ways that you are pursuing pleasure and enjoyment, ways that you might be pursuing purpose and meaning in your life, and ways to develop your psychological richness and further progress as a human.
Popular culture in Western civilizations particularly tends to encourage a focus on oneself, your own pursuit of goodness and joy in your life. And Substantial evidence suggests that what makes people happiest is focusing pro socially on others and building connection and relationships in our lives.
There is a growing body of research that supports the many benefits of being kind to others. One of the things I loved about this topic as Sonja began her presentation and updated research on kindness and its benefits in our well-being was how simple it is.
Kindness is Taught Early
The idea of being kind is something that’s taught to us from such a young age, and I think most of us have experience with kindness.
We know what it is to be kind. We know what it feels like to receive kindness from others. And so, the idea itself is not new or revolutionary. What does feel new, and revolutionary is some incredibly specific and targeted benefits that individuals can experience as they engage in it. Simple acts of kindness on a regular basis.
Of course, we know that acts of kindness have a positive impact on others. They have a ripple effect, inspiring recipients of kindness to pay it forward and spread positivity. That’s been studied and is a cool visual. When we engage in regular acts of kindness, we can feel increased cooperation with others. It can contribute to a more peaceful and cooperative family life. The positive effects continue in our neighborhood, and culture. Practicing kindness can enhance our self-esteem.
Kindness increases feelings of competence
Sonja shared a slide from a recent study that showed when compared to engaging in an act of kindness towards yourself, or an act of openness, or simply a social interaction, that engaging in acts of kindness with other people, for other people, greatly increased the participants feelings of competence.
I love feeling competent, isn’t it such a great feeling that you know that what you’re offering makes a difference, that you know that you’ve got this, and you can help in one way or another. Competence builds our self-esteem and kindness builds competence.
Kindness facilitates physical well-being and stress relief
I also always enjoy learning about the physical benefits, our physical, physiological benefits of what seem like psychological processes, like kindness, seems like something that you just feel as an emotion, but when you engage in acts of kindness, your stress levels begin to lower.
There’s a release of oxytocin that promotes bonding, reduces cortisol. Being kind is associated with lower blood pressure, a reduced risk of heart disease, and a longer life.
Kindness can even increase immunity
In a recent study, Sonja partnered with a founder in the field of social genomics, where they discovered changes in RNA gene expression with acts of kindness for others.
This means that after performing in several acts of kindness per week for a few weeks in a row, the actual blood samples of the participants who were in that group, in contrast to the control group, had less pro inflammatory and more antiviral affects in their RNA expression in their blood.
Does that make you think of the mind blown emoji face? Because that’s what it makes me think of. The little yellow happy face with his brain popping out the top of his head.
Kindness feels like such an everyday, simple baseline. Everyone knows what it is. We all really try to strive for it at least when we’re thinking about acting kindly.
Performing acts of kindness, being kind, especially to others, changes our physiology for the better. I want to take a second to just comment on the for others, how important that piece is.
It is not kind to self-sacrifice to your own detriment
And to be totally honest, as I was learning about this new research around kindness towards others, or kindness towards self, and how kindness towards others specifically benefits us to a greater degree than kindness towards ourselves. I felt like I needed to cringe a little bit, but mostly because I think as a woman, I’m hyper aware of the “human-giver-syndrome”, as the Nagowski sisters call it. I don’t think it’s just a feminine characteristic, but the idea of selflessness to our own detriment.
When we take care of others so fully that we neglect our own needs. That’s not what Sonja’s talking about here. Taking care of yourself, getting enough sleep, and reducing your own stress by saying no sometimes to things that might take you over capacity and into, a detrimental mental or physical state.
It’s important to be aware of what’s happening in your own life, in your own body, your own mind, your own relationships. Even when you’re tired or sad, kindness to others can help. It’s not a blanket umbrella cure. It doesn’t help all the time, but when you have the choice to, if you’re feeling okay, to help someone else with someone else, interact with someone else in kindness. To do something for yourself, by yourself instead, it can benefit you more to choose that kind of interaction with someone else.
In almost all the studies that Sonja shared, the participants were invited to perform or engage in an act of kindness with someone else, or for someone else, three to four times a week was about average. Not even every single day. And when you think of the different ways that you can be kind, the adding kindness to your regular routine isn’t like a big time or energy suck necessarily.
In fact, one of the most easily accessible ways to show kindness in an interaction with someone else is to smile. To smile at a stranger on the street. To smile at the person, you happen to stop next to at the stoplight. To smile at the other moms at the bus stop. Or in the office as you’re passing someone in the hallway.
I wanted to be clear about making sure that you always know that my hope is that you are taking really good care of yourself and that will continue to enable you to stretch your wings into even more focus and love spread throughout the world outside of yourself. My favorite thing about this kindness as wellness topic and being reminded of the importance of kindness is how simple it is.
Simply being reminded to be kind can help you prioritize kindness.
I think one of the best ways to increase the amount of kindness we engage in is simply being reminded to be kind. I thought it might be fun to share some definitions that might expand or clarify what your understanding of kindness is.
A dictionary definition of kindness is “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.” Thank you. We need to now define three more terms.
So, I thought this was so interesting. When I looked up what it means to be friendly, I got a list of actions and characteristics.
Friendliness, and thereby kindness, involves forgiveness, empathy, honesty, trustworthiness, acceptance, Dependability, encouragement, humor, respect, listening, holding boundaries, caring, and generosity, which is the next word that we need to define, so perfect segue.
Generosity means showing a readiness to give more of something than is strictly necessary or expected. So, kindness and generosity might mean going beyond what is necessary or expected. From a utilitarian standpoint of an exchange of ideas or value or, a strict tit for tat interaction, generosity is maybe a little bit more.
And finally, consideration or being considerate as an element of kindness. Consideration means paying attention to the needs, wishes, and feelings of other people. Being aware of others. Kindness yields connection.
One of my favorite quotes that encompasses the idea that the basic element of connection is from Brené Brown.
She says, “Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued.”
I think that relates to kindness as well. You’re being kind when you’re seeing, hearing, and valuing those around you. I
know we grow up hearing about the benefits of kindness and being encouraged to be kind around every turn in elementary school and middle school and maybe in high school as well and then at some point it starts to drop off a little bit.
Is Kind Still Cool?
You get a little bit older and It’s less frequently that you hear about the importance of kindness, and compassion, and love, and connection within the workplace, and running around on different boards, and different positions, and roles that you fill, and maybe you learn a little bit more about having to work hard and keep your head down and get things done.
Sometimes in the flurry of life, the messiness, and the busyness, we might just stop focusing on kindness. We might forget how simple it can be. Not in all our interactions and relationships, but certainly in some of them.
Where is it easy to be kind?
Can you think of somewhere where it’s easy for you to feel like you’re being kind?
Where kindness is your default. It may be in a specific relationship, a specific location. Are you often kind at home? Does that come naturally to you? Do you feel kind at the workplace? Do you feel kind at the ice cream shop or at the gym? Or at the library. I feel like it would be hard to be unkind to a librarian.
Don’t you feel like librarians are the salt of the earth? All my interactions at the library, I feel like I am just probably my very best self. When I interact with the library. Even when I go in for the 10th time, where my puppy has chewed up a book from cover to cover and I’m going to pay like a 30 fee to have the book replaced.
Even then, I know it’s my fault and I feel bad and I’m so grateful to the librarians for helping me figure it out.
Where is it difficult to be kind?
In contrast to that, can you think of relationships or areas or spaces in your life where you have a harder time being kind? Where it just feels angsty to be kind? I think for, in my experience, 80% of the population in the United States, an airport is a trigger for unkindness.
For some reason, getting in those lines and talking to those gate agents and going through security really suppresses baseline kindness levels in most of our population.
Who in your life exemplifies kindness?
As we’re fleshing out our ideas about kindness and our relationship to kindness, I want you to think about someone that you know personally who exemplifies the characteristics of kindness that we’ve been talking about.
I can think of several. One, though, because I don’t know this person very well, I think that her example of kindness has been really striking to me in my life. As I went through the definitions of kindness and some of the characteristics of a kind person and acts of kindness, this local friend came to mind.
Who has extended small, generous, thoughtful acts of kindness to me several times over the last couple years, quite unexpectedly, in most cases.
She’s a friend of a friend, who lives nearby me, and recently, has a baby who’s about a year old. Her kids are younger than mine are. She’s been renovating a house for the last year and a half and at a couple different points, has so thoughtfully and unexpectedly dropped by with something special for me.
When she found out that I was spending the holidays in Paris with my kids a couple years ago, she sent me a complete itinerary by arrondissement of the fun things to eat and do and see in the city of Paris that she had created with her sisters years ago. She brought by a Christmas card and a darling little postcard that had a French design on it just to express her excitement for my upcoming trip.
When I was in the thick of getting ready for thesis and finishing my finals last spring, she showed up on my doorstep with flowers, and a treat and a card to just say, “Congratulations, you’ve got this. Good luck in finals!”
So thoughtful, so simple, so unexpected. She thought of me, she did way more than was necessary because there wasn’t anything necessary.
These small acts of kindness really endeared her to me. They made me feel seen and heard and valued and understood and have had a ripple effect that I have noticed. My attention to detail of the lives of my friends has increased. As I think about being the recipient of such thoughtful and generous acts of kindness, I am better at noticing who in my sphere is similarly experiencing fun things that I could help a little bit with or reaching milestones that I could contribute to.
I try reaching out in simple ways to offer love and support and connection helps my friends and family and community and neighbors and librarians feel a little bit better in their lives.
And through Sonja’s research, I see how those acts of kindness are also yielding massive amounts of benefit in my own mental and physical health.
Simple Ways to Be Kind
To finish out this episode, I’m going to share a list of simple and small ways that you might share kindness with others. And you can write some of these down.
If I say one that you think, yeah, that’s a good go to, I want you to make mental note of it. And I want to invite you to plan and prioritize at least three to four small acts of kindness in the next week. Even if you just have time or thought for one or two, you may start to notice some of those benefits in your life and how you feel.
As a bonus, you could write down on a sticky note somewhere and stick it on your mirror or your entry table, Kindness is Wellness, as just a simple reminder to you as you head out into the world and even within the walls. Maybe even especially within the walls of your home, how a little kindness goes a very long way.
For the other person certainly, but mostly maybe for you. Here are some ways that you might be kind in the next week and months and years ahead.
We already talked about the smile, that’s a good one to just lead with. Give sincere compliments on people’s efforts.
Hold the Door
Hold the door when you’re going in or out of the library, the grocery store, the coffee shop. This involves that awareness of other people around you and offering just a kind gesture.
Whether it’s in a long line, at the airport maybe, in traffic, or during a conversation, being patient with others is one way to offer simple kindness.
Along with that comes how kind it is to listen actively and attentively.
One of my favorite ways to check in with myself about how I’m listening is to ask questions to further understand the experiences being shared with me as someone speaks.
Help a neighbor with simple things like Raking their lawn, or shoveling snow, or mowing.
Run an Errand
Maybe if you’re going somewhere a little bit far away our Ikea is several hours away it would certainly be kind and not difficult at all to send a quick text to some neighbors and friends before I make a long trip up there to find out if they have anything on their list from Ikea that I could bring back and deliver to them.
Sharing food is such a fun way to be kind. Whether it’s cooking a meal for someone or baking some treats at home and delivering them to someone. I have never had anyone upset with me for showing up at their house with food.
Apologizing and offering forgiveness are two vulnerable ways to be kind. To show openness and compassion and care for someone else if you know that you’ve done something that may have hurt them in one way or another. Kindness is beginning to repair and heal that relationship.
Offering Emotional Support
Offering support. Emotional support and encouragement to friends or loved ones who are going through challenging times. The awareness and effort and energy that goes into that type of support is beneficial for both parties.
Write Thank You Notes
You can write thank you notes to people who You appreciate and mail them or give them to them in person.
Offer your Expertise
Offer your expertise. If you like home design and you have a friend who’s decorating a room, you can offer to come over and help. There are so many small acts of kindness that happen around a household.
Helping someone with a task or a chore that they don’t know how to do very well, or they don’t have time for today.
I know that might seem ironic because I think most of my listeners are adult women who maybe feel like all the chores are what they do all the time. So maybe that one doesn’t apply so much, but something you can also teach to your kids and to your family members to exchange small kindnesses at home can build a culture of kindness in your family.
There are so many simple ways to be kind. Hopefully listening to this list has brought some to the surface for you, some ways that you like to offer kindness to others, things that you feel are natural or things you feel are good at.
Kindness Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect
I just have two points that I want to share before I go today. One is something that I was discussing with my therapist a couple months ago.
I mentioned to her that I had on me to do list some acts of kindness that I hadn’t gotten around to yet because of the scope that I created for them. One of them was sending a package to one of my family members. I live far away from my family. They’re all in the west, in Utah, and I’m in Virginia. And I had this package in mind.
I knew what I wanted it to include, and I hadn’t ordered all the things yet and one thing after another kind of got in my way, I hadn’t made it happen yet and so I didn’t do anything. I hadn’t mailed anything. I also hadn’t called. I hadn’t sent a text message. I hadn’t.
I was just like trying to make this thing happen and it was bigger than it was fast and so and then it, after time passed, and the event had gone by, I told her I, I haven’t gotten to it yet, but I really want to do it still, but I just keep not getting there. One of the things that she noted, astutely, was that I maybe had created something a little bit outside of simple.
We talked through, what was the purpose? Why did I want to send the package and not acknowledge the event? And is there some other way that I could do it, initially at least?
She gave me the advice that if I have a good idea for something kind, I want to do that I can do that day or, in the next few hours. To try to prioritize it for as close to the idea coming up as possible. And if I have an idea that’s bigger than that possibility, honor the kind thought with a phone call, or a text message, or maybe a note on the doorstep instead of a package.
That I can send a text message and say, “Hey, I’m thinking of you today.” “Congratulations on XYZ event! Look for something fun on your doorstep in the next couple of weeks or look for something fun in the mail in the next couple of weeks.”
That way I buy myself the time to complete whatever my vision is.
I also have acknowledged in the moment how proud I am or how excited I am or my condolences or my support, remembering that kindness doesn’t mean perfection. It doesn’t mean overextending yourself or stressing yourself out to be kind. The best acts of kindness for you will be the ones that feel the most natural and the simplest and the easiest for you.
Whatever comes up naturally as you were listening to the list and as I’ve been sharing this episode today, that’s the best place to hang out in your acts of kindness where it feels natural, where it feels simple and easy. Not that doing service and being kind should always be easy. There is some energy required.
And you will be more likely to prioritize kindness when it feels good, it feels connective, it feels, you feel competent doing it, rather than the alternative.
Are you up for it? Adding kindness back in as a priority in your everyday life? Hopefully today’s show has reminded you how beneficial it can be.
How kindness contributes in so many ways to your overall wellness. Being kind is being practically happy. Talk to you next week. Have a good one.