February is largely known as the month of love, though mainly of the romantic variety. That isn’t the only affection that deserves some attention, though. Experts say celebrating the relationships in our lives—the friendships, the romances, even the coworker-ships—by being more thoughtful and kind can have some serious benefits for us, too. With National Random Acts of Kindness Day coming up, what better time to start mulling ways that you can be more concerned for others in your life? Read ahead for the upsides to being more thoughtful, no matter if it’s holding open a door for a stranger or volunteering to help a friend move.
It makes us healthier
One of the major pluses of helping others is that it helps us feel better, too, in more ways than one. “Human beings are social animals,” Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, marriage and family therapist, says. “Evidence abounds showing we are emotionally and physically healthier when we are meaningfully engaged with other people. This means engaged with others in compassionate and altruistic ways. Not only does engaging with people in acts of selflessness, kindness and generosity make us happier, it also makes us physically healthier. This results from the lowering of our blood pressure and the release of a host of feel good hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine.” So yes, helping a pal edit essays for her grad school applications can boost your own well-being!
It helps us avoid stress
On the flip side, by putting others first, we can avoid some nasty situations that can lead to stress. Just think about the last time you let a snarky or sarcastic comment slip with a family member. Though it may have been a tiny kindness slip, it may have blown up into a larger messy situation. “When we engage in the world through narcissistic acts, we invoke a host of negative reactions from others,” Dr. Hokemeyer says. “These reactions lead to conflict which causes our bodies to go into stress mode. In this mode, we release pernicious hormones such as cortisol which leads to weight gain, hypertension and a host of other illnesses.” Avoiding weight gain and hypertension by being nicer? We’re on board!
It boosts our worldview
By doing thoughtful activities or contributing to our communities, we can improve our feelings about the places we frequent, and our lives in general. “We gain self esteem by doing esteemable acts,” Dr. Hokemeyer says. “We also feel better about the world around us and other human beings when we have meaning in our lives. An agenda of kindness, especially in times of political and social disruption, gives our lives meaning. Instead of being paralyzed by fear and anger, we can get out of ourselves and physicalize our intentions.” Don’t think you automatically have to overhaul your life and quit your job to volunteer, however. Dr. Hokemeyer says even small acts of kindness can “add incredible value to our lives.” You don’t necessarily have to take huge leaps when it comes to thoughtfulness—baby steps are fine!
It can help you deal with difficult people
Who doesn’t have a frenemy or borderline-toxic relative that gets under your skin? By reacting with kindness or thoughtfulness, you can neutralize the negativity. “When someone doesn’t act with respect or kindness, the best response is to track your reaction, honor it internally, then make a strategic decision on how you want to handle it,” Dr. Hokemeyer says. “Immediately reacting out of anger and vitriol just spews more emotional venom. It will poison you and your relationship. If the relationship is one that’s important, say a relationship with a loved one, close friend or employer then fashion a response that communicates your feelings rather than making them into a villain. If it’s just someone on the street, a cashier in the market or another passenger on the subway, a simple kind smile is all that’s required. The key is to rise above rather than sinking to their [level].”
It reminds us to be kind to ourselves
When putting the needs of others front and center, it’s important to make sure we’re not completely abandoning self-care in the process. “There’s a thin but significant line between being kind and being co-dependent,” Dr. Hokemeyer says. “You want to aim for the first and avoid the latter. Kindness is based on an internal locus of control. You’re self propelled. You’re clear in who you are, what value you bring to the world and what you want to get out of life. In contrast, co-dependency is based on an external locus of control. You feel lost and incredibly vulnerable. You live in constant in fear of being punished for making a mistake or of simply not being enough. People who suffer from codependency put other people’s needs and feelings before their own and get hurt in the exchange. Kind people get enriched through their kindness.”