Longevity and The underestimated power of kindness

When it comes to longevity tips, the underestimated power of kindness is a seldom spoken about health measure.  But it seems to be a common thread in the lives of centenarians - those people who live to 100+ yet don't have all the lifestyle disease that are usually so prevalent.  There lives seem to be characterized by kindness both towards themselves and others.  Compassion and self-kindness have a powerful impact on our health, wellness and longevity:

  • at a mind body biochemical level and at a DNA level (I explain this in my workshops and webinars
  • and an every day level when it comes to changing behaviors.

In one study, dieters were given a forbidden food (a donut) to eat.  They were then taken into a space with a TV and lots of candy around.  One group was left alone with their 'guilty-at-having-eaten-the-donut' thoughts - they ate a lot of candy.  However, the other group, after having consumed the donut were offered casual reassurance and self-kind suggestions before being taken to the TV area with candy.  They ate signifcantly less candy.  And this is only one way that the underestimated power of kindness could improve our health and chances of living longer and stronger.

The power of kindness

Sadly we've also been encouraged to be rather hateful and critical towards ourselves, as if by being harsh enough about our imperfections, we'll be motivated to improve.  But what if that isn't that true -what if we're completely missing the underestimated power of kindness?  I mean, let's face it, if self-disgust and a lack of self-compassion were such powerful tools for the good, why is there so much evidence that they may help us cycle through the same old behaviors, but they don't help us improve over the long term?  Besides never forget that being kind to others and helping others is a well known longevity enhancer (1). I talk about this in my CD on 'Together we Live Longer and Stronger' available on Amazon.

Being unkind to ourselves is putting our biology into a stress mode, and triggering a cascade of health eroding hormones like Cortisol -which is known as the 'death hormone'.  It's also a hormone that helps people regain weigh.  Chronic stress, (ongoing self-disparagement and self-chastisement would certainly qualify as stressful), also shorten our live-giving DNA Telomeres (sequences of DNA that form protective caps at the ends of chromosomes).   They get shorter every time a cell divides, so their length measures a cell's aging so if you want to live well and age better than self kindness is a powerful health measure.  You could literally be worrying yourself to death.

Why is the underestimated power of kindness healthy? 

I attended a workshop with Dr. Kristin Neff and Chris Germer on self-compassion.  It was fascinating to see how research  around the underestimated value of self-compassion has exploded in recent years.  I realized then that the benefits of the power of kindness, especially self kindness, can play a powerful role in a healthy lifestyle.  And yes - I know that sounds counter-intuitive.

So what is this underestimated power of kindness? Self-compassion, is a way of recognizing that you're suffering and treating yourself with kindness and care, when you're faced with a negative situation (such as feeling guilt and shame about your body, or guilt about your eating).  Self care that includes self kindness, helps people cope with stressful events  because it reduces their possibility of stress-related illnesses. Self-compassion as a health and wellness strategy has also been found to help buffer patients from the negative metabolic consequences of diabetes-distress

One research study (2) we heard about was when, 61 adults were randomly assigned to either 6 weeks of training in 'compassion meditation' or to a health discussion control ground.  Both groups were then exposed to a stressor.  In the compassion meditation group, researchers found reduced stress-induced immune responses.  This is in line with Mind Body therapies that have been found to reduce markers of inflammation in the body. (3)  Seems to me that anything that can play a positive role in aging health and wellness needs to be examined.

(1) Umberson, D., & Montez, J. K. (2010). Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior51(Suppl), S54–S66. http://doi.org/10.1177/0022146510383501

(2) Pace TWW, Negi LT, Adame DD, et al. Effect of Compassion Meditation on Neuroendocrine, Innate Immune and Behavioral Responses to Psychosocial Stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2009;34(1):87-98. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.08.011.

(3) The Effects of Mind-Body Therapies on the Immune System: Meta-Analysis.  Nani Morgan, Michael R. Irwin, Mei Chung, Chenchen Wang.  Published: July 2, 2014http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0100903

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