I’m as challenged as anyone about making and keeping New Year’s resolutions, so over the past few years I’ve trimmed mine down to just one word or phrase each year, like Connection or Efficiency; or Less is More, or Laugh More Often.
This year, after my husband I and escaped 3 close calls (one heart attack, his; and two uncomfortably close, Category 5 hurricanes), I got a bit clearer about what’s really important in my life. Besides love, friends, gratitude, and breath, Kindness has emerged as a distillation of what gives everything else power, and meaning.
So Kindness is my New Year’s Resolution this year: Being kind, feeling kind, acting kindly, accepting kindness from others: “Practicing Kindness” in every way I can.
It turns out that kindness is not only wonderful for its own sake, benefitting the bestower and the recipient, but it’s also really healthy for both. Research shows being kind is a natural part of the human condition, instigating a whole host of positive physical, mental, and emotional effects.
- For example, acts of kindness cause the body to produce more oxytocin (the “love hormone”), making us feel good and improving self-esteem and optimism. This hormone (also released by hugging someone for more than a couple of seconds) also lowers blood pressure by naturally dilating arteries.
- Kindness also stimulates the production of serotonin, our body’s natural antidepressant, and endorphins, natural painkillers, helping to lift us out of the negative cycles of anxiety, depression, and even chronic pain.
- Perpetually kind people produce less cortisol, the stress hormone, and thus live healthier, longer, and more satisfying lives.
Being on the receiving end of kindness—even witnessing kind acts— produces similar benefits to health and well-being, often engaging a cycle of kindness that continues well beyond the first moment of its experience. Like a small stone thrown into a pond, the ripples from one kind act can extend outward many times over, growing larger with each pulse.
Kindness is “contagious,” inspiring kind acts in others who receive or who witness a kindness being expressed.
One way in my own life I’ve learned to practice more kindness is to listen harder when conversing with someone (e.g. my husband, who is the most frequent someone in my vicinity), and to be quick to acknowledge when their point of view holds more merit than mine. I read recently that the simple words, “You’re right,” are two of the most powerful, supportive, and kind words you can say to someone; so I try to remember to use them often.
- Being kind toward oneself is another important, healthful, and often overlooked, avenue for kindness. A recent article in the New York Times by Kristin Wong, “Why Self-Compassion Beats Self-Confidence,” explains how self-compassion can be more supportive of well-being and success than self-confidence alone can be.
Instead of habitually being self-critical and self-judgmental, and then beating ourselves up when we don’t do enough, succeed enough, or communicate perfectly enough (okay, I’m talking to myself here!), practicing self-compassion allows us to relax, to be more creative, and to accept and learn from others’ feedback, and from our mistakes. This brings the benefits of a deeper, wiser, more realistic and more connected self-confidence, without the drawbacks that can come from over-confidence, like overestimating (and tripping over gaps in) our actual abilities.
- Last but certainly not least, kindness is good for the soul. Participating in and witnessing kind acts, and feeling their power and beauty, reaffirms our humanity, adds meaning to life, and “pays it forward” from one heart, and one life, to another.
As Mother Teresa said: “I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.” Kindness is like a muscle: the more you use it, the easier using it becomes. Acting kindly, every day, in small, spontaneous, and especially unexpected ways, can create a habit of kindness that can bring joy, real benefit, and fulfillment to your life and the lives of those whom your kindnesses touch.
So off I go into 2018, looking for ways to bring more Kindness into everything I do. I hope you’ll choose to participate in and to enjoy many of the riches, and the health benefits!, of Kindness in your own life, in the New Year and beyond.