The next time you're inclined to share nasty gossip, scowl at a coworker, or just be straight-up rude to the person holding up the checkout line with small talk, consider this: Being mean can drag down your health.
In fact, kindness can legitimately add years to your life span. It can also give you a quick pick-me-up when you'd rather punch a wall. Or stress eat. Here are nine ways small acts of benevolence boost your physical and mental health.
1. IT MAKES YOU MORE ATTRACTIVE
A group of men and women were asked to judge the attractiveness of 60 expressionless photos of female faces in a study conducted by Yan Zhang and colleagues at China's Huazhong University of Science and Technology. Participants pegged the pics whose subjects the researchers described with kinder qualities (i.e., "decent," "honest,") as much prettier than shots of gals the researchers described as "hostile" or "mean."
This isn't to say you should bite your tongue if you have nothing nice to say. But these findings are a testament to the power of a gentler approach to, well, just people...in general.
2. OTHER PEOPLE LIKE YOU MORE
When you're nicer to people, they're more into including you, letting you into their emotional lives, and returning any favors you offer. Simply dropping a few more thank-yous can do the trick.
Social connectedness is a huge factor when it comes to keeping our bodies and minds in top form. People who feel they belong to a group live longer, think clearer, and face a lower risk of heart disease than their lonelier counterparts. (They're also more optimistic, less depressed, and don't feel as anxious.) Consider kindness with others one giant leap towards rocking your next annual checkup.
And while in-person experience always trumps digital, even Facebook can trigger that warm feeling of belonging. Compliment someone via your newsfeed today in lieu of cutting into a celebrity's appearance and see how much better you feel.
3. YOU GET MORE STUFF DONE
Employees in companies who endorse a more compassionate office culture (think: not living in fear of a micromanaging boss or fretting that your colleagues are all out to get you) have been shown to work more effectively, be physically healthier, and feel more motivated to pump out good work. (If that intern just isn't hacking it, try taking the pressure off her a little — and show an interest in what she does outside of the office — to see how she improves!)
4. STRESS DOESN'T AFFECT YOU AS MUCH
Expressing affection to someone else — particularly someone you love — can protect your nervous system from the anxiety of everyday life. In 2007, Arizona State University's Kory Floyd tested how much of the stress hormone cortisol cropped up in 15 men's and 15 women's spit after each were exposed to several seriously un-fun stressors. Following these awful tasks, a handful of participants were then asked to write letters to someone they loved listing all the reasons they felt so fondly toward them. Letter writers' saliva showed markedly lower cortisol levels than those who didn't get the chance to express affection.
The researcher's conclusion? The simple act of telling a person how big a fan you are of 'em can make you more resilient in the face of hassles, frustrations, and physical discomfort.
5. YOU GO TO SLEEP HAPPIER
A team of psychologists from Yale University led by researcher Emily Ansell sent daily cell-phone check-ins to a group of 77 adults ranging in age from 18 to 44. For two weeks, participants reported each night how many stressful events they experiences (from work and family issues to interpersonal frustrations and health-related problems), how many kind acts they performed, and whether their overall mood felt positive or negative.
The more instances participants helped someone else out in a day — even by simple feats, like holding a door open — the lower their stress levels were come bedtime and the happier they felt, overall.
6. YOU GET SICK LESS
Research suggests people who devote more time to meaningfully helping others have lower markers of inflammation coursing through their bloodstreams and stronger abilities to ward off infections. Inflammation is linked to a host of diseases — including cancer and diabetes. Lower your risk by reviving your inner volunteer stat. (Here's how to find something generous to do that's close to you.)
7. YOUR CHOLESTEROL IMPROVES
The very same task of writing a nice little note of affection — not only to the person you sleep with at night but also to your friends or to your family — was also found (by the same researchers, in a separate study) to lower levels of "bad" cholesterol in college students.
8. ...AS DOES YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE
Lower your blood pressure by forgiving someone you're still holding a grudge against. This (admittedly challenging but rewarding) act has been linked to lower blood pressure. Whether it's a random spat with a fellow commuter, a long-held resentment toward a relative, or a lingering gripe with a work colleague, try letting them off the hook for the benefit of your heart.
9. PAIN DOESN'T BUG YOU AS MUCH
Showing yourself some compassion can help take the edge off physical suffering. Over 100 patients grappling with chronic pain were assessed by psychologists in 2011 for how severe their agony felt as well as how accepting, open, and understanding they were about their conditions. Those who demonstrated a gentler attitude toward their bodies — by not shaming or getting mad at themselves for not feeling better — were less incapacitated by their anguish than those who didn't cut themselves a break.