Wellness for Activists: The amazing (science-backed) benefits of practicing kindness

Wellness for Activists: The amazing (science-backed) benefits of practicing kindness

Welcome to my weekly feature covering ways us activists can lead healthier lives. For a full explanation check out the inaugural edition here, but in short, most of us do a terrible job of taking care of our minds and bodies. This is a science-based exploration of how to change that, so we can be around for many years of fruitful activism. 

I was a sullen, tortured teenager, bitter and angry at the world, as teens often are. One day, driving down the highway, my dad was rear-ended by an inattentive driver. His brand new mid-life crisis mobile, a Ford Mustang convertible, had a smashed-up bumper and broken lights. I watched as the offending driver scribbled something on a piece of paper and gave it to my dad. As my dad got back in the car, I asked him if he had taken down the guy’s license number, or his car’s license plate. He shrugged. The paper had a phone number that, of course, turned out to be fake. 

I was furious. My father was such a chump! He had been played! Why was he so stupid? He just shrugged it off and told me to relax, it wasn’t a big deal. To him, it was better to be kind and trust people than to be cynical and wary. 

Five years later, I was shocked when I arrived at his funeral. Several hundred people were already there. Friends and family, sure. But customers of his video store, the one that had survived on the strength of customer service despite a Blockbuster moving in down the street. His postman was there. Random people he did business with. A lot of folks that I never quite figured out who they were. All of them individuals he had touched with one simple tool: kindness. They all had a story of how my dad had helped them out, looked out for them, been there for them. It was eye-opening. 

Unfortunately, I’m not my dad. I’m cynical, distrustful, wary. My friends might rush to defend me, and sure, you could point to ample examples of my generosity. But I’m nothing if not self-aware, and I know this one simple truth—I am fiercely loyal and generous to my loved ones. Everyone else? Not so much. 

And that’s what kindness is. It was something I admired in my father, yet I lacked it so completely it was bizarre. And so as I began doing my inner and outer work four years ago, it was only a matter of time before I began to work on that long-neglected muscle. Turns out, it is much nicer and more fun to be kind, and science shows us myriad benefits of a mindful kindness practice. So don’t discount this as hippie, new-age shit. This is legit real. 

Another story: Three years ago I began dating my current partner, Grace. I was immediately drawn to her kindness, which reminded me of my father, but I didn’t quite understand it. Wasn’t it exhausting always being so mindful of others? Didn’t people always take advantage of her, and when that happened, how did it not make her jaded and bitter? 

One day, I joined her at a boutique fitness studio in Manhattan, lugging a big box of presents for the studio’s entire staff. The place lit up with smiles when she walked in, and even more so when they saw the big stash of loot I had in tow. There were lots of hugs and laughter as the gifts were handed out. I watched in awe from the sidelines, still trying to make sense of it all. Grace had just randomly pulled in with presents for everyone at a business she frequented on occasion. That was a thing people really did? 

But the reaction was undoubtedly intoxication, the happiness and fellowship. I was conflicted. That part was awesome, but the rest? I mean, she did gifts for everyone in her life, and even had little gifts for her mother’s and sister’s clients and co-workers and oh my god how did she get anything done? And she did this every year.

On the way out, the studio’s manager called Grace aside, and with several beaming staffers at his side, told her that in appreciation for her annual thoughtfulness, they were gifting her a year’s worth of classes (which cost $35 each!). What an amazing thoughtful response, and to be honest, my cynical self understood that a little more. But it was also clear that Grace had been doing this for years without any such reciprocity, and that was never her intention anyway. She was kind for the sake of being kind. And I was less drawn to the free fitness classes, and more to the way everyone beamed when she walked in. And they still beam that way when they see her. In fact, everyone does. Just like they did when they saw my father. 

I’m sure we can all share anecdotes of how kindness has impacted our lives, either giving or receiving it. And I actually hope you guys can share down below. These stories are so good for the soul! But let me intrude here with some cold, hard science. Turns out, being kind is good for you

  • Kinder people live longer, healthier lives. “Giving help to others protects overall health twice as much as aspirin protects against heart disease. People 55 and older who volunteer for two or more organizations have an impressive 44 percent lower likelihood of dying—and that’s after sifting out every other contributing factor, including physical health, exercise, gender, habits like smoking, marital status, and many more. This is a stronger effect than exercising four times a week or going to church; it means that volunteering is nearly as beneficial to our health as quitting smoking!”
     
  • Kinder people have more energy. A UC Berkeley researcher reported that “[a]bout half of participants in one study reported that they feel stronger and more energetic after helping others; many also reported feeling calmer and less depressed, with increased feelings of self-worth.”
     
  • Kindness makes you happier. A Harvard study found that across all cultures and ages and even toddlers, “people who spend money on others report greater happiness.”
     
  • Kind people have lower chronic stress. A study found that “The experimental group [using a kindness-inducing protocol] experienced significant increases in the positive affect scales of Caring and Vigor and significant decreases in the negative affect scales of Guilt, Hostility, Burnout, Anxiety and Stress Effects, while no significant changes were seen in the comparison group. There was a mean 23 percent reduction in cortisol and a 100 percent increase in DHEA/DHEAS in the experimental group.”
     
  • Giving flowers to strangers “are a powerful positive emotion ‘inducer,’” says a study. “In Study 1, flowers, upon presentation to women, always elicited the Duchenne or true smile. Women who received flowers reported more positive moods 3 days later. In Study 2, a flower given to men or women in an elevator elicited more positive social behavior than other stimuli. In Study 3, flowers presented to elderly participants (55+ age) elicited positive mood reports and improved episodic memory.”
     
  • Being kind makes you more popular! A study found that pre-adolescents who did nice things for others, like carrying groceries, “experienced significantly bigger increases in peer acceptance” which was “related to a variety of important academic and social outcomes, including reduced likelihood of being bullied.” 
     
  • Loving-kindness meditation” is a contemplative practice in which you quietly focus on developing feelings of goodwill, kindness, and warmth towards others. One study found that such a practice “produced increases over time in daily experiences of positive emotions, which, in turn, produced increases in a wide range of personal resources (e.g., increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased illness symptoms). In turn, these increments in personal resources predicted increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.” Other benefits included decreased chronic pain and increased life longevity. (Lots more benefits, all of them similar to any meditation practice, so I’ll focus more on those when I tackle meditation.)
     
  • You still dating? Kindness makes you more attractive, no matter the culture. A study of 10,000 men and women around the globe found that no matter where researchers looked, kindness was among the top traits, and was “universally desired.” A dating site surveyed 400,000 members and found that a “whopping 82% of women and 70% of men rated kindness as extremely important in finding a long-term partner, even trumping expected winners like sexual attraction, emotional connection, and moral values.” In fact, it was the most sought-after trait. A Psychology Today review of research on the topic concluded that “people are wired to choose kindness when selecting a romantic partner, especially for long-term relationships.”

I could keep going and going, but you get the point—kindness makes you healthier, happier, more popular and more liked, more romantically desirable, and more. It kind of explains why deplorable incels can’t get dates, huh? It’s also contagious, so kindness begets kindness. 

Now let’s be real—while it’s always nice to have science back something up as wonderful as kindness, we didn’t really need that evidence, did we? Kindness is intrinsically wonderful. We gravitate toward kind people, like my good friend Iara, who opens up every single interaction with another person with a compliment. I first met her at a conference in 2004, and was (platonically) smitten from the beginning. It wasn’t until years later where I noticed that simple but suddenly obvious trait. Random and heartfelt compliments are kind. 

Again, none of this has ever come naturally or easily for me. One of my co-conspirators in starting and growing this site, Susan Gardner, once asked if I would ever give her a job review so she would know what she was doing well, and how she could improve. My response? “You still have a job, don’t you?” I was such an insufferable asshole, even to one of my dearest and closest friends! It was easier for her to just telepathically assume how much I loved and appreciated her and everything she did, than for me to actually say those words out loud. And so I’ve set out to be mindfully kind, training myself to do something. And just like training a muscle, the more you practice, the easier and more naturally it comes. 

Send a random text to a random friend or family member every day, simply telling them you love and appreciate them. Do the flower trick above. (I haven’t tried it yet, but now I can’t wait.) Compliment your coworkers, tell them how you really feel about them. Some of you do it easily! But for some of us, it feels … vulnerable. But do it anyway; it’s worth it. 

Be friendly with all wait staff and service workers you interact with. Ask them how they’re doing! No one ever does, it’s always them asking how your day is. My partner Grace says that she’s always paid attention to how her dates interact with local staff. She feels safer and more at ease if those workers recognize her dates. It’s a marker of kindness.

Give your regulars gifts, and not always around Christmas—I’m talking your letter carrier, favorite wait staff, custodial staff at work or at your residential complex, etc. Hold doors open for others. Carry someone’s bags (in a post-COVID world, of course). You see trash in your neighbor’s yard, pick it up. Share the fruits of your garden. Offer seedlings or cuttings of your favorite plants. Gift a book you think a friend might love. Maybe even better (says the father), gift a book to their children. 

Be a good listener, and especially you men—don’t feel it’s your job to find an answer. Yeah, that’s one that I’ve been working on for years. You know what the magic words are? “How can I help?” There are few words more powerful for cementing relationship bonds in the English language. Do more to help around the house. Pick up your partner’s chore every so often. Wear a gift someone gave you in their presence. If you are able, offer up your seat to someone who might need it. 

Smile at strangers (another tough one for me!). Let people through in traffic. Pay attention to the person behind you at the grocery checkout line, and let them through if their buy is small. Write thank you notes (I don’t, but I really want to start, because people who do are truly wonderful). Tip generously. Be nice to the new guy, or the new neighbor. Donate your time or money to a charity. 

Practice kindness mindfully, and you’ll make this a better world for both yourself and everyone around you. 

Wellness for Activists

1. Walk
2. Practice kindness

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