Being kind to others positively impacts your physical and mental health, according to this innovative research by Stanford professor, Dr. James Doty.
Kindness is a virtue that is admired and applauded in most cases. But did you know that being kind can also be good for your health? In fact, being compassionate towards others can redefine our consistently stressed systems back to our standard “rest mode”, causing all sorts of positive effects on our overall health.
According to Dr. James Doty, Stanford professor and author of Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and Secrets of the Heart, the nervous system does not function perfectly if it is in time threatening mode whole. And yet, our adrenaline-fueled, “on the go” lifestyle makes us operate mostly in threat mode, which can be one of the reasons why we contract a variety of different diseases.
Our bodies release inflammatory proteins in response to stress. Because of this release, our nervous system shows a decrease in the capabilities of our immune system, which is what responds to threats like germs or bacteria that cause disease.
The constant over-stimulation of our nervous systems caused by our fast-paced way of life also makes us much more inclined to jump to (often critical) conclusions about other people. This kind of quick judgment dulls our own ability to act out of compassion for others. This, in turn, leaves us operating in a constant threat mode, which has long-term negative effects on our health.
Kindness and compassion put us in “rest mode”, starting with the nervous system
The ability to feel and act out of compassion for others can have a huge effect on your overall health.
Dr. Doty explains this best in this Uplift article:
“When someone acts with compassionate intentions, it has a huge positive effect on their physiology. This takes them out of threat mode and into rest and digest mode. What happens when this happens is that it changes the way they respond to events. “
According to Dr. Doty, instead of a quick response that is usually based on fear, anxiety or stress, our response time is slower and more deliberate, which tends to result in more effective, creative and compassionate actions. We are able to change the responses we have to events because we are allowing the executive control area of our brain to function at the highest level.
Several studies at Emory University have demonstrated this and yielded results that support the idea that regular compassionate acts or meditation practices based on compassion can reduce the negative neuroendocrine interactions in our brains (which are the interactions between our nervous system and the endocrine system).
The sympathetic nervous system vs the parasympathetic nervous system
When we switch to our parasympathetic nervous system (which we do instinctively when we act out of compassion), we leave the sympathetic nervous system in which most of us live due to our hectic lifestyle.
When this change happens, our heart rate variability increases, which boosts our immune system. This strengthening of the immune system can help us fight infections or diseases.
Now, let's talk about telomeres. To visualize them, you can imagine small capsules that protect the ends of the chromosomes during cell division. Telomeres get shorter each time a chromosome copies during cell division, which happens constantly. Eventually, telomeres become too short to do their job of protecting the genetic information stored on chromosomes, which stops cells replicating - a process known as cell death. This is how telomeres act as an aging clock in every cell we have; the faster your telomeres shorten, the more advanced the aging process becomes.
Dr. Doty's research has shown that one of the positive long-term effects of living on our parasympathetic nervous system (referred to as our “resting” mode) is that our telomeres actually grow in length.
In theory, over time, being kind and compassionate can actually slow down the aging process in some cells in our body.
Just as showing compassion can recalibrate our nervous systems out of threat mode and back into rest mode, feeling compassion or kindness others also has a positive impact on our systems. Research by Professor Stephanie Brown at Stony Brook University has proved that experiencing compassion can also lead to tremendous improvements in our physical and mental well-being.
Be kind. It is good for your health.
This innovative research allows us to understand the benefits that and human interactions can have on the health of our minds and bodies.
The positive ripple effect of being kind not only affects our health, it can also impact our interactions with others and trigger a positive chain reaction with far-reaching benefits in entire communities. Resetting our own systems to sleep mode, leaving threat mode, can allow us to process things more clearly and make better choices.
In a world you can be just about anything, be kind. It is good for your health.
Adapted Big Think