Christmas is just weeks away, and as is typical for the season, people start to feel generous. Donations to the bell ringers with the red buckets increase, end of year donations to favorite charities will occur and you may even feel so benevolent as to put together a shoe box for an international missionary.
While, these are all quite attractive, did you know that kindness can actually help you heal your body? Yes, there are numerous health benefits to being kind.
As we soon enter the season of “Giving,” we may want to look at some evidence that strongly suggests that this season should become a year-long experience.
Our brains love kindness – our neurological reward systems show similar activity when we win money and when the same money goes to a charity of our choice. In short, when we give, our brains look like they are gaining something – and the pleasure we feel makes us more likely to give in the future.
Research by Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia found that people given $50 who spend it on others are happier at the end of the day than people who spend it on themselves. The same goes for a work bonus of a few thousand dollars – even though, beforehand, people say they’d much prefer to spend the money on themselves. We are even happier when we remember buying things for others than when we remember buying things for ourselves. And the more generous we are in general – the more money we spend on gifts and donations – the happier we tend to be.
So, giving is pleasurable, but what about helping? It might seem easier to spend money on others than to spend time on them, but it turns out both forms of kindness make us happier. A study of more than 3,000 people found that 95% of people feel good when they help someone, 53% of people feel happier and more optimistic, and those feelings last hours or even days for 81% of people. The “helpers’ high” is a real phenomenon.
A 2001 study found that regular volunteering increases happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, and sense of control over life. And it works for young and old alike: black inner-city teens who tutor younger children have more positive attitudes toward self, others, their education, and the future; and elderly people who volunteer are more satisfied with life.
Kindness strengthens our immune system, reduces aches and pains, improves our cardiovascular profile, and boosts energy and strength in elderly people. In a 2006 study, the most loving and kind couples were shown to have the lowest levels of atherosclerosis (clogging of the arteries).
Various studies in the past 15 years have shown that regular volunteers have better health and (among the elderly and those with HIV/AIDS) a lower mortality rate.
So how often should we be out volunteering? A study by Allan Luks, famous for researching the “helpers’ high,” found that weekly volunteering makes you 10x more likely to experience health benefits than annual volunteering. Among older people ages 64-68, an Australian National University study found that we get the greatest health benefits from volunteering about 2-4 hours a week and little benefit from any time beyond that.
Even witnessing kindness might be good for us: a 1988 Harvard study found that participants who watched a 50-minute video about Mother Teresa had elevated levels of salivary immunoglobulin-A, which protects us from pathogens in food.
Over the past 15 years, various studies have shown a connection between kindness, altruism, and volunteering and less depression. For volunteers, this is the case as long as they don’t go overboard and overburden themselves by giving too much or too often. Being unkind to ourselves – via low self-compassion – is also connected to depression and low psychological well-being.
Oddly enough, those of us who are struggling might be some of the best candidates for kindness. Over the years, studies of people fighting disease, chronic pain, and emotional trauma have shown that kindness can help them cope better and combat negative emotions.
A 2004 Brown University study, for example, found that alcoholics who help other alcoholics have a 40% sober rate the next year, compared to 22% among alcoholics who didn’t help others. For patients with chronic back pain, helping other chronic pain sufferers actually decreased the intensity of their pain. And HIV patients who practice altruism can lower their stress levels.
Self-kindness is equally important for coping. When we’re ill or troubled, it’s easy to blame ourselves and think of all the things we could have done better, everything that’s wrong with us, all the opportunities we missed. Self-kindness is a way to find some peace and acceptance, and to care for ourselves the way we would care for a loved one in our situation. Chronic acne sufferers who practiced self-compassion for two weeks – including challenging their inner critic and writing a self-compassionate letter – experienced less shame and depression as well as less physical burning and stinging due to acne.
When self-critical people fail, their brains go into problem-solving mode; they feel more negative and try to avoid the reality of failure. When self-compassionate people fail, brain areas related to positive emotions and compassion activate, and they tend to be more positive and accepting. If you force self-compassionate people to list the worst things that have ever happened to them, they tend to comfort themselves and feel that everyone has been through a similar experience, while self-critical people feel negative and worse off than others.
In short, trauma presents an opportunity: Do we beat ourselves down even further, or give ourselves the care and comforting that we so desperately need? So many of us choose the former, but the benefits of self-kindness can be revolutionary.
Often, you’ll see things like “open the door for others,” “say hello to a stranger” or “hug a loved one” on lists of ideas for acts of kindness—but these behaviors and acts should be considered common courtesy and generally nice behavior rather than something extraordinary. These are things you should be doing any way!
Instead, think of things that you can do that take some thought, effort or time. Buy the coffee for the car behind you in the drive-thru lane, donate blood, hand out hats and gloves to people in need, pay the bill for another’s meal at a restaurant, shovel your neighbor’s driveway, leave a kind note of inspiration on a stranger’s car, bring flowers to a nursing home—the list could go on and on!
As Aldous Huxley said, “People often ask me what the most effective technique for transforming their life is. It is a little embarrassing that after years and years of research and experimentation, I have to say that the best answer is—just be a little kinder.”
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Employer kindness can improve performance and mental health Medical News Today
New research examines the impact of a single, small gesture of kindness on the mental health and efficacy of 86 bus drivers living in China.
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For Andrew Dickens, the problems started as soon as he was old enough to get credit. “I was terrible with money,” he says. “And it was the late 90s and credit was dished out like sweets.” After leaving university, he would frequently build up debt on credit cards to fund his lifestyle, before being offered consolidation loans to bring the balance to zero. “And off you go again.” He was even given a £10,000 consolidation loan by a bank when “they knew I was unemployed”.
A cocaine addiction, linked to his depression, accelerated the accumulation of debt – he estimates that at one point during his mid-20s, he owed more than £50,000.
“It all became a nasty circle: my debt fuelled my illness, my illness made me build up more debt, and so on. The problem was, my mental health issues prevented me from confronting it,” he says.”
For Dickens, like many others, issues with money and mental health are delicately interwoven. It’s a widespread problem: just as people in problem debt are significantly more likely to experience mental health problems, those with mental health problems are more likely to end up in problem debt.
In a survey by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI), 86% said their financial situation had made their mental health problems worse. But despite the copious evidence suggesting exactly how connected the two factors are, critics say that banks and utility companies are still falling short when it comes to supporting their customers.
“If someone has a physical disability or sensory impairment, most companies know what to do,” says Helen Undy, director of the MMHPI.
“Even if they’re not doing it brilliantly, if someone says they’re visually impaired or have hearing loss, firms tend to know what adjustments they should be making, and generally those things tend to be available.”
But if somebody has a severe mental health problem, most companies “don’t know what to do”, she says. “There’s been an increasing focus over the past couple of years on being kinder and more understanding, which is a good start. But actually, kindness doesn’t necessarily give you access to the services you need.”
It’s with this in mind that the institute has developed a new set of accessibility standards, designed to improve access to essential services.
Working with 25 providers across financial services, energy, water and telecoms, the standards lay out 11 key areas for firms to improve on. Among these are ensuring that services are as accessible as possible, and being able to provide specialist support for those who disclose their mental health problems.
Companies are encouraged to train staff, improve systems and processes, give customers their own tools to manage their finances, ensure customers can communicate with providers in a variety of ways, and improving website accessibility.
The service providers are asked to recognise customer fears and communicate in a way that’s easy to understand.
While some solutions to the problems can be accessed via technology (challenger bank Monzo, for example, uses card blocks and delayed payments to make it harder for mentally ill customers to spend money), many other suggestions could be relatively simple to implement.
Undy points to logins. Is there not an easier way for banks to confirm who customers are? “There are so many passwords, pin numbers, secret names,” she says. “Many people find they’re essentially locked out.”
If you can get into your account, you may not be able to remember the details of a conversation you’ve had in store or on the phone.
“Firms are ending up with repeat callers who can’t remember if they have debts or a direct debit set up, or what kind of repayment plan they agreed,” she says. “For some people this can be very distressing, especially if they’re already anxious.”
Sending reminders after the conversation of what was agreed would be simple to implement, Undy argues, and so would other low-tech features, such as the ability to download a conversation you’ve had on web chat.
“At a very basic level, you can train your staff to ask at an important point during the phone call: Do you have a pen and paper? Here are the key bits of information you need to know.”
Giving customers options – which Undy describes as “just good customer service” – is key. “We know that half of people with mental health problems have significant difficulty making phone calls,” she says. “So what’s going to make the difference is being able to pay your bill or update your meter reading via web chat or email. We just need a range of ways to do things.”
After a year of research and development, the standards were launched recently. The MMHPI is now running a pilot with Lloyds Bank, assessing all of its personal banking products.
Mortgages, credit cards, loans, overdrafts and more are all being measured against the standards to see how easy it is for customers to get access to and manage their products.
At the end of the pilot, Undy hopes, the standards will be rolled out more widely.
This is only the start when it comes to improving essential services. Earlier this year, research from Citizens Advice found that mentally ill people pay on average £1,110 to £1,550 more for services per year, largely because of the so-called “loyalty penalty” – the cost of not shopping around for different products.
This is partly an accessibility issue – people practically struggling to switch. But if you are in a desperate situation, Undy points out, switching your contents insurance “is really not top of your priority list”. Firms need to ensure people are not being penalised.
Debt charity StepChange is also campaigning for a comprehensive system of support for those struggling with distressing life events – this, they argue, could prevent people from getting into financial problems to begin with.
After 20 years struggling with debt, Dickens’ credit rating has returned to normal, though money “still gives him anxiety”.
He firmly believes that essential services should be doing more to support people with mental health problems. As the accessibility standards suggest, he wants to see staff properly trained in mental health problems and how they can manifest, and for firms to advertise more prominently the features they have in place for support.
“And they need to understand that mental illness can be disabling – that it can physically stop you from acting,” he says. “They need to treat people like people.”
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