The medicine of kindness

02/07/2019

I have been thinking a lot about kindness lately. Specifically, what does kindness look like as a way of living one’s life? How do we keep it on our radar as an animating practice? How does that warm feeling that comes from kindness toward others affect our health? Do kind-hearted individuals have a survival advantage? Can intentional kindness shift cultures in workplaces and communities? How about societies?

While kindness is an orienting philosophy for me, last week it was brought into sharper focus by my daughters’ engagement with the Great Kindness Challenge observed by the Bolinas-Stinson School. They were “creating a culture of kindness” through kind words and deeds at school, which rippled out into meaningful conversations at home. My daughters and I began to look for opportunities to extend kindness to the people around us, and to notice how good it feels to connect to people in such a caring way. Surely such goodness is good for your health? I am delighted to share that this question has been studied. And yes, it is good for you.

The warm, good feelings generated by speaking kind words, thinking kind thoughts and doing kind deeds is mediated by the release of hormones like oxytocin and serotonin, and the stimulation of the calming vagus nerve. This, in turn, counteracts the stress response, decreases inflammation and oxidation in the body, and releases nitric oxide, which lowers blood pressure and improves blood flow. Even observing someone doing something kind stimulates this response. All of this is very good for the body and the mind. 

Kindness extended toward others has also been found in scientific research to change gene expression in a way that is associated with better health. Researchers in a study published in Psychoneuroimmunology in 2017 randomized participants into four groups. For four weeks, participants either directed acts of kindness toward specific individuals, the world at large or themselves, or engaged in a neutral “control” activity. The scientists were specifically interested in whether levels of “expression” of a gene associated with inflammation as well as degenerative diseases were altered with kind activities. They found that those people directing kind actions toward others (but not themselves or the world at large) had a reduction in the expression of this gene. This is suggestive that practicing kindness is an important epigenetic modifier.

Another study found that people assigned to practice loving-kindness meditation, known as metta meditation, had longer telomeres than those not assigned to the practice, even after controlling for other variables. Telomeres are the “caps” at the end of genetic material in our cells; longer telomeres are associated with better health on a cellular and whole-person level, and longevity. Loving-kindness slows the aging process.

All of this focus on kindness happens to be coinciding with an opportunity arising in my life to support a friend returning home from the hospital. As I write this, soup stock is simmering on the stove and tomorrow my daughters and I will go out for the nettle we will add to this nourishing, bone-healing soup. We’ll bring our hearts into the soup-making. And then we’ll make a house call. 

This reminds me of the studies demonstrating the healing power of the kindness a medical provider extends to a person seeking care. Many studies over several years have demonstrated, again and again, that if a patient experiences his or her health care practitioner as empathetic (having the ability to understand and share the feelings of another), his or her health improves. Responding with generous listening and attuned presence is perceived physiologically, oxytocin and serotonin and more are released, and healing begins. Improved outcomes in some of the studies include measured immune response, shortened severity and duration of cold symptoms, and improved subjective experience of pain. 

Female medical providers, studies show, seem to be better able to express empathy in their interactions with their patients, with whom they spend on average 2.2 minutes longer. I wonder if this perceived empathy is in part responsible for studies showing patients under the care of female physicians have better health outcomes.

The good news is that empathy and kindness can be cultivated. With attention and practice, we can all be spreading the medicine of kindness, improving our health and that of the people we care for. It is contagious, in the best possible way. In fact, recent studies performed at Stanford suggest that the more people see kindness and generosity in their peers, the more they are drawn to conform to that orientation and act accordingly. I am grateful to our school for its leadership in cultivating a culture of kindness. May we all respond in kind, for our collective wellbeing.

 

Anna O’Malley, M.D., is a family and community medicine physician at the Coastal Health Alliance. She lives in Bolinas.