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Being kind is good for your health: How to practice kindness every day

Nov. 13 marks World Kindness Day. Doctors say people who experience kind and loving environments fare better.
/ Source: TODAY

Evidence of the health power of kindness starts with a mystery involving rabbits.

In the late 1970s, researchers were conducting animal experiments to see how food affected the heart. Unexpectedly, one group of lab rabbits fared much better than others, despite being fed the same harmful high-fat diet.

It turned out all of the thriving rabbits had the same affectionate caretaker who wasn’t just feeding them, but petting them and talking to them.

It made the difference between a heart attack and a healthy heart, Dr. Kelli Harding writes in her book, “The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness.”

There’s overwhelming evidence it works on humans, too, she noted. Simply put: Kindness is actually good for us and improves lives.

“Medical care only accounts for 10-20% of our overall health and the other 80-90% is somewhat our genes and what’s happening in the rest of our lives outside clinical care,” Harding, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, told TODAY.

“People who experience kind and loving environments fare better.”

It works on a physiological level: Stress is bad for the immune system, but kindness buffers stress, she noted. There’s increasing evidence inflammation is behind many different causes of disease, but feeling good from positive connections with other people lowers a person’s inflammatory response, she added.

The emerging field of epigenetics also shows DNA is more malleable than researchers thought.

“That is incredibly exciting because it means our stories are not set in stone — we have some ability to control them with our daily choices and actions,” Harding said. “It turns out our social environment can alter the way the DNA story is explained.”

People get a health benefit from both receiving and giving kindness, so Harding recommended practicing it every day. Here are her tips:

1. Little acts of kindness can make a big difference

“Each of us in our day-to-day lives has hundreds, if not thousands of moments to be able to practice kindness,” Harding said.

When you’re getting a cup of coffee, look the barista in the eye and ask her how her day is going. During your commute, let another car go in front of you. If you’re in a line at the airport, help a person who is in a rush.

“It can actually boost your mood and it also has positive ripple effects on your biology,” Harding said.

2. Be kind to yourself

Take care of your body and banish the negative self-talk. Follow your interests and sign up for a class. Education is a form of kindness to ourselves — it's great for our brains and our health, Harding said.

3. Reach out to others

Think about somebody who is lonely or seems like he or she is having a hard time, and offer your companionship.

“Kindness is about reaching out. Not everybody is going to accept the invitation. But repeatedly doing it, you’ll be surprised and delighted — magic happens when you reach out to others,” Harding said.

4. Get to know your co-workers

Try to connect one-on-one with different colleagues and learn something about them as human beings, not just what they do at work. Resist the urge to spread negative gossip, but sing a co-worker's praise when she does well.

People think having a good doctor is important, but it turns out having a good manager is also critical for good health because we spend so much time at work, Harding noted, so managers should do what they can to create a supportive work culture.

Think of the feel-good show "Ted Lasso," in which the main character's warmth and kindness has an impact on everyone around him.

5. Be generous about hugs with friends and loved ones

“I’m definitely giving my kids much longer hugs” after researching the power of loving touch for the book, Harding said.

Treat relationships the same way you treat exercise or diet — something that’s really critical to your health, she advised.

6. Think about someone who has shown you kindness

As an exercise in gratitude, consider a kind person in your life, then send them a note or meet them for coffee. Do something to acknowledge their kindness to you, because it will be incredible for them to hear from someone who says, “You made a difference in my life,” Harding noted.

7. Don’t make assumptions if someone is being unkind

Hurt people hurt people, as the saying goes. If someone is unkind, something may be triggering their behavior. Many people have some history of trauma.

“Working in mental health, I know oftentimes we have no idea what’s happening behind the curtain with people and their lives. So when you see somebody who is acting in an unkind way, it can be helpful to keep [that] in mind,” she noted.

“You can’t go wrong with kindness. The kindness you give comes back to you."