By Erika Taylor
My mom was having a bad day.
She had waited months to get her car scheduled for repairs after being rear-ended at a stoplight. She had nervously wound her way across town, missed her turn, found her way back, stomped through the snow and gone inside. Only to discover that she had mistakenly been scheduled for an estimate (which had already been completed weeks earlier) and not the repair. She explained that between the tire pressure warning light on, headlight not working, inability to lock the doors and the bashed-in backside, she just didn’t think she should be driving her car. The receptionist politely insisted the next available repair appointment was months away.
To say my mom felt defeated is a grave understatement. She asked the receptionist as calmly as she could if at least some air might be put in her tire. At that point the last thing my mom wanted to do was stay there, but she handed over her keys and sat down to wait. She texted me at this point to let me know what was happening. I did my best to buoy her, but I could tell she was on the brink.
About 20 minutes later she called me, crying.
My first thought was that she had tried to drive and, as upset as she was, had gotten lost or, worse, been in another accident. She collected herself enough to say, “I’m OK.” Turns out she was far better than just OK.
My mom had handed her keys to a smiling young man who disappeared with her car. He returned quite some time later and motioned for my mom to join him outside saying, “I’m sorry that took a little longer than I’m sure you expected. I got your tire all fixed. I hope it’s OK that I went ahead and popped a new headlight in too.”
She was stunned. She hadn’t even realized anyone heard her telling the receptionist how upset she was about driving around with that light out. She knew only then how nervous it had been making her. Driving at night has become challenging for her even under the best circumstances, and having the light out made her feel even more vulnerable. She stood there silently with tears running down her face, unable to even thank him. When she finally could speak and asked what she owed him he said, “You have such a nice smile. That’s all the payment I need.”
The tears when she called were of relief. And amazement at the difference one human can make in the life of another with just one small act of … yes, you know the word … kindness.
We are surrounded by need. Many needs are complicated and overwhelming. Impossible for any one of us to mitigate on our own. But many of the things we need are tiny. Micro-kindnesses that ANYONE can offer at ANY time. Making eye contact with a fellow human and saying, “hello.” Holding a door. Writing a note. Letting someone merge in traffic, inviting a coworker to coffee, thanking a bus driver, taking your sick neighbor’s dog for a walk…
My holiday hope is that we will all look for opportunities to practice not only offering these tiny acts, but noticing them. It’s so easy to keep track of the unkindness. The slights stick with us while we ignore the stranger who bids us, “good day,” or the driver who stops to let us cross the street. When we do this, we are missing a chance to bolster our health.
Study after study have shown that sharing kindness can reduce stress as well as improve mood, self-esteem and happiness. Practicing kindness can increase our sense of connection and purpose, both of which are proven to compress morbidity and reduce our chances of premature death. One study led by Kelli Harding, MD, MPH, found that of 13,000 adults observed, those who had the highest sense of purpose had a 46% lower risk of premature mortality. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that when we help others, it can promote changes in the brain that are linked with reduced stress and nervous system regulation.
A study published in 2019 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology showed that just a six-week workshop on cultivating kindness through meditation helped protect telomeres. Telomeres, part of DNA, play a role in cell growth. The length indicates how our bodies are aging. While protecting telomeres may not let us live forever, it is extremely helpful to our overall health. Jeffrey Brantley, MD, coauthor of that study, said participants who did a more general mindfulness meditation did not show the same health benefit in terms of telomere length. It was only seen in those who were specifically focusing on kindness.
So when I say that noticing and practicing kindness may save your life, I am not exaggerating. Not everyone can take an unsheltered family into their home this holiday season, or provide car repair to a woman who is at the end of her rope. But every single one of us can notice all the ways our fellow humans are kind in their daily lives and look for ways we can provide that bit of connection in return. I can’t think of a better wish for this season and all year long than this.
Erika Taylor is a community wellness instigator at Taylored Fitness, the original online wellness mentoring system. Taylored Fitness believes that everyone can discover small changes in order to make themselves and their communities more vibrant, and that it is only possible to do our best work in the world if we make a daily commitment to our health. Visit facebook.com/erika.taylor.303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.