Why Kindness Is Critical for Our Health and Relationships
Since our last post, I (Suzie) have spent much of my time on round-the-clock phone calls with a variety of doctors, nurses, and medical personnel.
I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of a complex situation with my dear father who has been experiencing numerous complications from a routine surgery. I’ve been quite worried about him, and it’s been keeping me up many nights.
Coupled with the emotional distress, I was driving back and forth to see my dad at the hospital on a daily basis, navigating heavy highway traffic, for a couple of weeks.
After visiting and comforting my father, I would meet with his doctors and then race back to the city to pick up our son in time from middle school. Then the calls would resume again until late into the evening with my family and the medical experts.
The next day, the same thing would happen all over again. No progress. No answers. I felt like I was in the movie Groundhog Day. Needless to say, I was feeling quite tired and overwhelmed.
I recall one day in particular after arriving home when I felt utterly and completely exhausted. At that very moment, I felt that I had nothing left to give. And I wondered how I would get through the evening to take care of my family. I just wanted to plop on the couch and do nothing with the lack of emotional and physical strength I had at the time.
However, as a mom and a wife, I knew I had many responsibilities. Especially since my husband was away on a work trip.
It was at that very moment that I received a beautiful gift. No, it wasn’t anything extravagant or sparkling, like expensive diamonds or my favorite prosecco. (Although either of them would have been welcomed.) In fact, it was something that was so simple, yet it affected me profoundly.
A parent of our son’s friend randomly reached out to me to ask if our son needed a ride to soccer practice that evening. While it was a small gesture, it was one that was so needed and appreciated. And the timing couldn’t have been better.
At that very moment, that one small act of kindness felt like it lifted a huge load off my shoulders. It actually brought tears to my eyes. It reminded me that we are all connected and the importance of reaching out to others and asking for help.
Normally, I would have pushed myself and taken my son to practice because I thoroughly enjoy being there with him. However, I knew I absolutely needed rest, and if I didn’t get some it would compromise my health and my ability to care for my family. So I accepted this kind friend’s thoughtful offer. Instead of having to hop on the highway to battle traffic again, I was able to put on my pajamas and rest in bed.
The Benefits of Giving and Accepting Kindness
Kindness is one of the 24 VIA character strengths foundational to the science of positive psychology. As we discuss in Happy Together, “Kindness is motivated by an emotional connection, a sense of common humanity we feel with others.” True kindness is the bedrock of healthy relationships that are key to our well-being. When we are asked to describe our close friendships, we most likely use the word “kind.”
In romantic relationships, researcher John Gottman found that happy couples overwhelmingly prioritize kindness and build it into their relationships. He found that they say and do kind things on a regular basis. In fact, they make five times as many positive as negative comments to each other. And they do small things on a daily basis to show their kindness.
Numerous studies over the years have found that kindness can boost our happiness levels. Those who give it feel better about themselves and more compassionate toward others. And those who receive kindness often feel less lonely.
Additionally, receiving kindness from others is associated with lower blood pressure and cortisol, a hormone that is responsible for our stress levels. A recent study even found that kindness can change our gene expression. It’s like magic medicine for the soul.
We can all likely recall being the recipient of kindness when we least expected it, most needed it, or perhaps when we didn’t feel like we deserved it.
As Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant reports in the Grant Study of Adult Development, in moments like these, kindness can be not only comforting but also life-transforming.
Vaillant found that kindness can heal old wounds and open our hearts. In turn, we are more likely to be kind to ourselves and pay it forward to others, creating upward spirals of positivity,
It’s the Moments, Not the Momentous
Kindness doesn’t have to be momentous to make an impact. While grand overtures of kindness can be appreciated, of course, research has found that it’s often the little things carried out on a regular basis that have the most powerful effect since we live our lives together from moment to moment.
These small acts of kindness, like offering to do the dishes or driving your child to school so that your spouse can sleep in, can have ripple effects and add up over time, strengthening our loving connections.
The following day, after receiving that random act of kindness that allowed me to rest, I awoke feeling refreshed. I put on my running shoes and ran through the park.
Forgoing my ear pods so that I could tune into nature instead, I listened to the birds, gazed at the lush green trees, and felt more alive than I had in a long time. Appreciating the beauty that surrounded me in nature, and being grateful for the kindness of friends, I felt replenished.
While I still had challenges with caring for my father, my burden was lighter. I felt buoyed by the small things, by the natural beauty in the world and the kindness of others.
The funny thing now is that I realize that I didn’t even think to ask for help from anyone when I was running on empty. I was fortunate in this situation that I didn’t have to, and that kindness found me.
However, it’s important to remember that when we feel depleted, we need to ask for help from others. And to always reach out to give kindness to others. You never know how much difference the smallest act can make on someone else’s life.