Are you getting your 150 to 300 minutes of exercise five days a week (in truth, maybe some weeks), eating a Mediterranean-style diet (well, mostly) and getting enough sleep (sometimes), but you still need to tone up, bring your blood pressure down, control your glucose levels or let loose of stress?
Accumulating research from around the globe shows how powerfully beneficial kindness, both extended to others and received from others, is to your physical and emotional well-being. It may be the missing component in your quest for better health.
In a new book (packed with solid research and data) called “The Rabbit Effect,” Dr. Kelli Harding, a former emergency room psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian hospital, explores the power of kindness and its importance in achieving health, both individually and as a nation. This matters because, as Harding points out, “our nation spends a fortune on health care, yet we remain remarkably unwell.” It is called “The Rabbit Effect” because rabbits fed a high-fat diet that are talked to, picked up and cuddled were found to have 60% fewer artery-blocking deposits in their blood vessels than rabbits fed the same diet without being shown kindness.
Another example from the book of the power of kindness includes Carnegie Mellon University research that exposed more than 400 healthy volunteers to a cold virus and discovered that those who got a daily hug were 32% less likely to get sick.
HOW KINDNESS WORKS
Generosity, empathy, selflessness, friendship, love and volunteering to help others: All these qualities promote robust good health by reducing stress, increasing happiness (all those good hormones, like oxytocin, that surge around your body) and easing inflammation.
KINDNESS FROM YOU TO OTHERS
A study out of University of California, Berkeley, found that when people 65 and older volunteered for two or more organizations, they had a 44% lower likelihood of dying over the time of the study. That means that volunteering is nearly as beneficial to your health as quitting smoking. The more you reach out to help others — that’s kindness — the less lonely, happier, healthier and more energetic you and they will be.
The 80-year Harvard Study of Adult Development (all men) found that it wasn’t the guys’ cholesterol levels at age 50 that predicted how long they would live or how they would grow old; it was how satisfied the guys were with their relationships that made the difference. Empathy and attachment were the powerful predictors of continuing health.
But gestures of kindness don’t have to be grand. Particularly enhancing to your health are random acts of kindness, like holding a door open for someone or, conversely, having someone offer you a seat on the bus. Being able to both give and accept care and acknowledge your human need for connection is an essential part of good health.
KINDNESS IN PUBLIC HEALTH POLICY
We also need to expand our kindness into public health policy. One good example of how effective it can be comes from the Cleveland Clinic Office of Patient Experience. It was established in 2008 to teach and improve empathy among caregivers. Why? Because when care providers are more empathetic to patients, they’re inclined to pay more attention to what patients tell them — and that helps with diagnosis and treatment. Empathy and kindness from health care providers also helps create better outcomes. Patients are inclined to follow self-care directions better and to ask more questions so they are better informed, and to be less stressed, which improves healing.
THE KINDNESS BOOST
Decide to do at least one random act of kindness a day. Look for organizations to volunteer in. Ask for help when you need it. And, says Harding, you will discover that “the larger ties that bind us — ties of love, connection, purpose — have ripple effects on our health and the world at large.”
Mehmet Oz, M.D., is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D., is chief wellness officer and chairman of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.