How Kindness Affects Your Health

This past Friday when I left work I was feeling a bit stressed thinking about everything I wanted to do, and needed to get done over the weekend. My husband and I were planning on going out on a “date” because he was finally feeling better after having some minor surgery and I was really looking forward to it, but I needed to get to the grocery store first. I was making dinner on Saturday night for special company and I wanted it to be good. It was a gorgeous and warm Fall afternoon and I was hoping to get a walk in before our “date”since these days of beautiful weather are certainly numbered. Anyway, I pulled into the grocery store and of course, my luck, the car in front of me was taking FOREVER to park. FINALLY this car made it into a handicap spot, and then I felt kind of guilty for having no patience. I pulled around and parked my car, then walked quickly to get a carriage. Being the nosy person I am sometimes, I had to watch as this person was getting out of her car….or attempting to. I kind of froze in my tracks, watched and waited. She was a tiny little white-haired woman of maybe 5 feet tall. And she appeared to be struggling with something (getting out of the car? standing up?). So I just had to go check to see what was going on with her (I was hoping she would not be afraid that some stranger was approaching her). As I got closer I could see her struggling to get her walker out of the car and keep the door open at the same time. “Do you need some help?” I asked. She was so sweet, just like she looked and said “well, that would be nice, thank you”. It made me sad that she was alone, and I made some kind of comment like “wow, that is great that you are driving! My mom hates to drive”. I almost laughed when she said “well, I probably shouldn’t be! I am 94 years old!”. Yikes and Wow. Anyway, she proceeded to tell me that she usually has her niece pick up a few things for her, but today she could not wait because the town was doing a food pantry collection tomorrow morning and she needed to have a bag ready for them to pick up. She seemed so unsteady (after throwing her walker in a carriage she then uses the carriage as a walker apparently….that is the technique). So I just decided to walk around and chat with her as she shopped, giving her my opinion on what I thought would be good for a food pantry. She talked about her older (yes, older) sister who was not mobile, in a wheel chair but according to my new friend, her older sister is still “with it”, so smart “she could do your taxes!” she said. I found out that she has a neighbor who helps her too, and takes out her trash. By the time she checked out and I walked her to her car, I felt like I made a new friend. We actually exchanged numbers (her name is Leah) and I made her promise to call me if she was stuck and needed something (I kind of agreed with her that maybe she should not be driving). I worried about how she was going to get those groceries out (I made sure to separate everything so nothing was heavier than a jar of spaghetti sauce) and made her promise she would only take a few things at a time.

When she drove away I went back and did my shopping, but I felt especially happy. I felt like I shared a special time with someone who has been on this earth for 94 years. And remained sweet and kind and polite and just, well, nice. Someone who had determination and mustered the strength to do something kind of challenging (and scary)……. because she needed to help others. What an inspiration. I got so much from this encounter and it stuck with me.

Finally, after a very busy but fun weekend I had a chance to think about it. I decided to look into the research a bit. My question was “is there any connection between kindness and health?” Because clearly this special woman was so kind and giving, yet despite her older age she seemed content and happy. I also was affected from trying to be kind (not sure what drew me to help her, I think it may have been more about fear of an old person falling than consciously thinking about being kind). Anyway, what I found was striking, although I kind of expected it. YES, there is a connection between kindness and health, and get this….it probably starts with kindness to yourself. Yup, being good to yourself. Treating yourself with love and respect. That “self-talk” I have mentioned before, that can really affect your behavior if it is negative (“why did I eat that!? that was so stupid!), or worse. If you have ever heard someone beat themselves up for what they eat (or if you have done it yourself) then you know what I mean. Well, that kind of emotional beating does not lead to health. It usually leads to self-destructive behavior or even depression. According to this research study: The Affect of Loving Kindness  “Loving-kindness meditation (LKM) is a special type of Buddhist meditation that aims to cultivate unconditional kind attitudes toward oneself and others”. This is not some kind of religious thing, it is just an approach to life (oneself and others) that apparently is good for us. More research is needed it appears, but even the fact that psychologists are using the technique (or approach) called LKM or Loving Kindness Meditation is amazing to me. The fact that focusing on how you are thinking both toward yourself, and toward others, can affect your happiness is pretty cool if you ask me. We are all different in our brain chemistry (some people may be more prone to depression or eating disorders for instance), and all of us go through hard times and get depressed. But what if we made an attempt to think of others instead of ourselves? Could it really work to make us happier?

I think it needs to start with yourself. It has taken me years to be kinder to myself. I wish I treated myself the way I do now, but 20 years ago I gave myself a hard time. I expected way too much of myself if you ask me. Now, it is funny but as long as I feel I am doing my best (I make mistakes, say dumb things, do dumb things, but if my intentions are good, well, I forgive myself and move on). Back then, I didn’t. Then, when I started to work with people with eating issues, I learned that a lot of people are not good to themselves at all. For them, their eating was the focus of their lives, and it needed to be perfect. Nothing was good enough as far as how my patients looked at their eating, their bodies, or themselves. LKM may have really helped them. Especially with themselves. Learning first to be kind to yourself frees you to reap the rewards of being kind to others.

During the next few days we are going to decide our next President. I really don’t care what side you are on. I know people, really wonderful and kind-hearted friends who think differently and will vote differently than I will. But I am hoping that we all think about loving kindness, and being good to each other. Remember, most people (well, if you ask me) are good. We just may disagree on the way we look at things, but that is ok. Please think of my new friend Leah, a woman who can barely walk, yet who managed to get out and buy food for the needy, because that is what was burning on her mind, and that is what she needed to accomplish, and she did.  I want to be like Leah. I hope you do too.



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