The Kindness of Strangers

2016 has been a hell of a year. And with a Tweeting Tyrant poised to enter the White House, we totter precariously into 2017. Most of us are going to make resolutions; this is a year to make them count. If you haven’t yet made up your mind, I have a suggestion: Make a resolution to be kind.

Kindness and compassion have been sorely missing in recent years, replaced by suspicion, fear and insularity. Our health has suffered for it. Opioid addiction and drug deaths have reached historic highs, and cancer and heart disease rates are increasing. It was recently announced that the average life expectancy in the US has dropped for the first time in decades. Depression is rampant; and it is obvious we have good cause. But I think we are spending far too much time dwelling on it. We need, instead, to make an effort get our heads in a better place, and the simple act of kindness can send us in the right direction. Not only does it benefit the people around us, but the giver can get as much back as they give. There is even scientific evidence to back this up.

Human brains seem wired for kindness. When we give, the reward circuitry in our grey matter is triggered much the same as if we’d been given a bonus at work. That sense of well-being we get from being kind to others is sparked by an increase in the output of the dopamine receptors in our brains. Endogenous opioids and serotonin give us a natural high, with no pesky aftermath. We just feel better.

That emotional warmth produces its own biochemical effect; it increases oxytocin levels throughout the body, bringing a sense of well-being and in turn releasing nitric oxide, a chemical that expands the blood vessels and reduces blood pressure. Kindness not only warms hearts, it’s good for the heart. An added plus: oxytocin reduces free radicals and inflammation, major culprits in both disease and aging.

Kindness strengthens our immune systems and soothes the aches and pains in our bodies and minds. That cantankerous old coot who is incessantly bitching at the kids to get off his lawn is damaging himself more than the children. They can go play somewhere else, but he’s a nasty old coot wherever he goes and his attitude and isolation will shorten his life. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is a major contributor to myriad disorders, including premature aging.

Studies in the past 15 years have shown that those who volunteer have better health and a lower mortality rate. All it takes is 2 to 4 hours a week, probably far less time than you spend playing video games or browsing social media. Try being with actual human beings for a change! You might like it.

A study at Brown University showed that recovering alcoholics who help each other maintain a 40% sobriety rate compared to 22% for alcoholics who don’t help others. Patients with chronic pain who support each other actually decrease the intensity of their pain; and it’s non-addictive and doesn’t cost a thing.

Kindness improves relationships of all kinds. People who feel considered are more likely to consider back. Trying to win and be right doesn’t win anyone happiness. What is left to the victor after a war is spoils … not love.

Being kinder to others can help us be kinder to ourselves. While it’s true that a healthy ability to address flaws is important, we forget how important it can be to forgive ourselves, and others, for not being perfect. Life is for living and learning, not for standing on a pedestal or preening in endless selfies.

Right now, there are a lot of wounded people in this world. People who have been hurt are like animals that have been hurt: they can be dangerous. They snap and snarl without thought or reason. They harbor resentment and bottle it up, exploding in ways that hurt everyone around them. Simple acts of kindness can reach some wounds that nothing else can heal.

There’s not much we can do to effect change on a global level, but each of us can make our own worlds a little better. We have already tried arguing, judging and throwing up walls. Let’s try something new: Let’s put a little love in our hearts. I’d like to close with a quote from Robert Michaels: “I don’t care if you’re black, white, straight, bisexual, gay, lesbian, short, tall, fat, skinny, rich or poor. If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you. Simple as that.”

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