A Simple Act to Create a Buffer from Stress
Positive emotions can often go unnoticed. Cultivating them is a surprisingly powerful way to build mental and emotional resilience and create a buffer from the chronic stressors in our lives.
Hate. Injustice. Fear. We don’t have to look far to find evidence of the darker side of humanity. Our shadow side is what mainstream media focuses on, and apparently, what our culture responds to. However, we can shift our focus towards what heals us, and it can be simpler than we ever imagined.
The pace of life sends stress hurtling toward us at nearly every turn. As our nervous systems become wound tighter and tighter towards the far end of the fight, flight, or flee continuum, it becomes harder to find a way to turn back the dial. Especially since that dial involves a kind of softness that can become calcified by the demands of each day.
The trick, it seems, lies in a consistent reminder to our system to let down our guard, to rest, even just for a few moments. There is a lot of emphasis on being happier, but there is also a backlash, because happiness as a constant state of mind is an unachievable goal—life is just not designed that way.
We can, however, look towards the root of happiness, known in the field of psychology more generally as positive emotions. We know from years of research that positive emotions give us buoyancy. Cultivating positive emotions, which can often go unnoticed, is a surprisingly powerful way to build mental and emotional resilience, and create a buffer from the chronic stressors in our lives.
One powerful way to lean into these positive emotions on a daily basis is to practice kindness. A recent study from Iowa State University showed that spending time silently wishing others to be happy showed a significant increase in measures of empathy, connectedness and happiness as well as a decrease in anxiety. This is also a form of Buddhist meditation known as metta, or loving-kindness.
Kindness is beneficial not just for those who practice it, but also for those who receive it. As Kelli Harding describes in her new book, The Rabbit Effect, kindness has a profound effect on both the giver and the receiver. She describes an experiment that was measuring how a high fat diet caused unhealthy fatty deposits in rabbits. This was back in 1978, when the connection was not entirely understood.
However, the results that were surprising were that the rabbits who were held, cuddled and spoken to while in the study showed significantly less fatty deposits in their blood vessels. The simple acts of kindness offered to them had affected their physiology.
Harding expands on this concept of kindness by exploring what she calls “the hidden factors of health” which include: one-on-one relationships, social ties, education, and our neighborhood. These “social conditions profoundly shape our physical and mental health.” She goes on to explain, “kind and loving choices that support emotional well-being and reduce stress may help prevent or delay the onset of many diseases."
Kindness is not simply a passive, think good thoughts kind of emotion. “Being kind takes bravery,” says Harding. “It requires standing fearless and doesn’t mean being passive or a pushover. Genuine kindness takes a strong will to hear someone else out.”
In our increasingly loud and polarized society, practicing this aspect of kindness, respectful listening and considerate action, could be one of the steps that will lead us toward collective healing. As Naomi Shihab Nye writes in her poem "Kindness:"
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”
We know sorrow, we feel it deeply as our rainforests burn and our children are shot in their schools. We must find a way forward that lifts us all up towards a future for generations to come. It may begin with simple acts of kindness.
Read more in our article “Simple Human Kindness.”