Cultivating positive emotions is a 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 sadly, what our culture responds to. However, we can shift our focus toward what heals us—and it can be simpler than we ever imagined.
Stress is hurtling toward us at nearly every turn in our hectic everyday lives. As our nervous systems are wound tighter and tighter toward the fight, flight, or flee continuum, it becomes harder to find a way to turn back the dial. The trick to turning it back lies in the consistent reminder to ourselves to let down our guard, to let our systems rest—even if just for a few moments.
However, though we should strive to be happier, we should remember that happiness as a constant state of mind is an unachievable goal—life is just not designed that way. We can, though, continue to nurture the roots of our happiness. Cultivating positive emotions, which can 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 is to practice kindness on a daily basis. 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 can have a profound effect on both the giver and the receiver. For example, she describes a 1978 experiment that examined the effects of a high-fat diet in rabbits. The study showed that the rabbits who were held, spoken to, and cuddled had, surprisingly, significantly less fatty deposits in their blood vessels. The simple acts of kindness offered to them had affected the rabbits' physiology. Harding expands on this concept of kindness, explaining, “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, according to Harding. “Being kind takes bravery,” she says. “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 polarized society, practicing kindness, respectful listening, and considerate action, could be one of the steps that 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 toward a brighter future for generations to come—it may begin with simple acts of kindness.