Last year I reported on research showing that kindness is the most underappreciated tool for greater wellness. Along with diet and exercise, simply being warm and thoughtful will do more for your health than any fancy detox or "healing crystals." It's a happy message for our divided times, so no wonder it was one of the most popular posts of the year.
But it turns out that even that cheerful news from scientists doesn't fully convey the powerful health-boosting effects of kindness. In fact, new research suggests kindness won't just make you happier and healthier now, but may actually prolong your life.
Can kindness slow aging?
The new study out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is small and preliminary, but given the known benefits of kindness, there's no harm in jumping ahead to put its conclusions to use. There are, after all, no nasty side effects to hugs, politeness, and good will.
And the results are pretty startling. The researchers gathered around 150 middle-aged volunteers and then separated them into three groups. One group went through a six-week mindfulness meditation training involving weekly hour-long classes and 20 minutes of daily at home practice, another received similar training in loving-kindness meditation, another form of meditation that encourages you to open your heart to others, and a third served as a control group.
At the beginning and end of the experiment all the volunteers had the lengths of their telomeres measures. Telomeres are like little caps on the end of your chromosomes that protect your DNA from daily wear and tear. As we grow older they get shorter and shorter, making them a good proxy for aging. The slower your telomeres wear down the longer you're likely to live.
While all three groups had shorter telomeres at the end of the 12-week study period than they did at the beginning, the loving kindness meditation group's had lost the least. The control group had lost the most with the mindfulness meditators in the middle. Practicing loving kindness meditation for just six weeks seems to have slowed aging a little.
Yes, there are caveats, but....
Again, I should repeat, there are plenty of reasons to take these results with a grain of salt. It's a small. short-term study focused on willing meditators. Things might look different if more skeptical folks were measured over longer periods. But as I also mentioned, there are also plenty of reasons to suspect kindness might be linked with better health and therefore longer life.
First among them perhaps is just how serious the effects of nastiness and isolation can be. A heap of research shows that loneliness will kill you just as surely as a ten-day smoking habit (I'm not exaggerating). And a mean boss has been shown to be the biggest predictor of whether a man will die of heart disease. Lack of warm, human connection can kill.
That suggests that the flip side is also likely true. Kindness and fellow feeling don't just make life more pleasant for everyone, they also physically protect your body from the ravages of stress and time. So while the exact science of how loving kindness and DNA interact is still in the works, if you want to slow down your aging, it's a good bet to simple try to be a little kinder and surround yourself with those who are kind to you.