Kindness is free, as they say, and yet it holds great value for the giver as much as the receiver. When kindness is passed from person to person, it has the potential to benefit whole communities.
Humans are social creatures, and kindness helps connect us to each other in pleasant, supportive ways, says UNC Health clinical psychologist Crystal Schiller, PhD.
“Kindness and expressions of gratitude to others are the glue that keeps social relationships together in the long run,” Dr. Schiller says. “It’s about honoring each other and the connections we have.”
Kindness Is an Antidote to Loneliness
The U.S. Surgeon General says loneliness is epidemic and having significant negative consequences on people and society, including increasing the risk of premature death by more than 25 percent—as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
There are ways to combat loneliness and isolation, however, and being kind is a good place to start.
Kindness can improve a person’s capacity for compassion and empathy, which strengthens relationships, and having good relationships with friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors has many health benefits, Dr. Schiller says.
“The research is clear that social connection is a powerful antidepressant,” she says. “We thrive when we feel like we belong to a social group.” Also, because of its positive effects on relationships, kindness helps people feel more connected through traumatic events.
Kindness is contagious, too, studies show. If you smile at someone on your way to work, that person is more likely to smile back or to smile at someone else. “Even small acts of kindness have ripple effects and add up over time,” Dr. Schiller says.
The Benefits Go Both Ways
Being kind not only helps the recipient of the kindness, but it also enhances the mood and health of the person being kind, Dr. Schiller says.
If you cook a meal for someone else, that person feels good, and you feel it, too, a phenomenon called elevation. The body has a physical reaction to being part of an act of kindness.
“The person who gets the meal feels cared for,” she says. “The kindness can be returned with an expression of gratitude, which makes both people feel good. But don’t just say, ‘Thank you. I enjoyed it.’ Tell them they’re an amazing cook.”
Kindness reassures us that people in our communities will be there when we need help.
“Someone at work has surgery, and we set up a meal train,” Dr. Schiller says. “That’s a kindness that binds us together as a group. The person who is the recipient feels cared for, and we feel good about helping. It’s an important aspect of being in a community.”
Kindness Can Be Big or Small
Being kind doesn’t require grand gestures, Dr. Schiller says.
“It can be simple things, like opening the door for someone or saying hello, looking them in the eye,” she says. “We can get so caught up that we don’t even notice others.”
But kindness does require intentionality. Don’t just ask people how they are, for example. Stop and listen to the answer.
“For me, it’s honoring another person’s humanity,” Dr. Schiller says. “That’s being kind. It’s not a surface-level kindness—smiling on the outside but thinking about other things on the inside or having unkind thoughts.”
Being kind also isn’t limited to other people, she says.
“Kindness to animals or to the Earth counts,” she says. “If you are doing it with intention, it creates the same positive emotions. You care. Certainly, it’s a kindness and something that benefits the person engaging in the kind behavior.”
If you’re feeling lonely, try extending an act of kindness to someone else. For continual feelings of isolation or depression, talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.