Parkland expert says practicing kindness is good for your health
Buying a cup of coffee for a stranger, greeting people with a smile or making time to volunteer can pay big dividends in improved health and well-being, according to a Parkland Health & Hospital System behavioral health expert.
“Research shows that being kind is a simple, inexpensive way to counteract the unhealthy effects of stress in our lives. The old saying, ‘It pays to be kind,’ is true,” said Jacqueline Juarez, MSW, LCSW, a behavioral health counselor at Parkland. “Performing acts of kindness makes people happier and healthier. When we give of ourselves, everything in our lives improves – from life satisfaction to our physical health.”
Studies show that people who are kind produce 23 percent less of the stress hormone cortisol, report lower rates of depression and age slower than the average population, Juarez said. Being kind creates what one scientist calls, “an emotional warmth,” which releases the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin in turn triggers the release of nitric oxide, a chemical which dilates the blood vessels. This reduces blood pressure and, therefore, protects the heart.
In a study on happiness, researchers at University of California Riverside found that performing positive acts at least once a week for others led to the most happiness among those studied.
Doing good deeds is part of many religious and philosophical conditions. The Jewish concept of “mitzvah” and the Christian ideal of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” are examples. Zakāt, or charity, relieving the economic hardship of others, is one of the pillars of Islam.
Latisha Blair, a data analyst at Parkland, regularly volunteers at a homeless shelter. As a teen, Blair was homeless and struggled to support her young children. Today she is living the life she never thought possible – college educated, employed, married, a homeowner and mother of four. But she’s never forgotten the small acts of kindness shown to her years ago when she was at her most vulnerable. Kind words, hugs and encouragement from a doctor and nurses at Parkland helped her find the strength and confidence to improve her life.
“You can’t look at someone and know who they are or what they’re going through,” Blair said. “I often buy lunch for someone in Parkland’s cafeteria, or for the next person in line at a convenience store or drive-thru. I just ask the cashier to put the person behind me on my order. I feel almost anybody can contribute just a few dollars a week to make someone’s day special. And it makes my day better, too.”
Juarez said there are also psychological benefits for people who struggle with social interactions. Simply doing good deeds or kind acts can make socially-anxious people feel better and help them connect with others.
University of British Columbia researchers assigned people with high levels of anxiety to do kind acts for other people at least six times a week, such as holding the door open for someone, doing chores for others, donating to charity and buying lunch for a friend. The researchers found that helping others led to a significant increase in people’s positive moods. It also increased relationship satisfaction and decreased social avoidance in socially anxious individuals.
Teaching kindness to children should begin at a very young age, said Juarez, who has a 6-month old son. In fact, psychologists recommend that we focus more on kindness and less on overachieving in our children, she added.
“It’s up to us as parents and teachers to model kindness at home and school. When we notice a child doing something kind for another, we should provide positive feedback,” Juarez stated.
The same method works for grown-ups, according to Stanford University studies that demonstrated how kindness spreads by example with adults. The research found that when people are the recipients of kind words or deeds they are automatically more likely to behave kindly toward others, spreading the original generosity along further.
“It all adds up to living by the golden rule,” Juarez said. “If you want the world to be happier and healthier, try being kinder.”
You can start your own kindness project this week by trying these random acts:
• Carry umbrellas or bundles of new socks in your car and hand them out when you see someone who could benefit.
• Pay the bill for the next car behind you at a toll booth or drive-through restaurant.
• Talk to someone in line at the bank or check-out line at the grocery. Sharing a moment and laughter with a stranger can lead to a happier day for you and the other person.
• Send someone a random note or email of appreciation.
• Compliment someone – whether it’s about how they look, or how they make you feel. Try to point out something good about each person you to talk to this week
• Smile at everyone you pass – you’ll feel the lift in your spirits that smiling provides and you may life someone’s bad mood with a cheerful hello and generous smile.
During the holiday season, people tend to be more generous and focused on other people’s needs, Juarez said. “But if you want to be healthier year-round – make it your New Year’s resolution to practice kindness every day.”
To learn more about Parkland services, visit www.parklandhospital.com.