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After a tough time, kindness might be our best tool for a better life

“The Secret to Love is Just Kindness”

That’s the title of a popular post about the traits of happy marriages, from an interview with John and Julie Gottman.

Is there any real proof that kindness is key to happier partnerships?

Science has come a long way to uncover what’s different between relationships that feel safe and good, and those that blow up, fall apart, and hurt like hell.  

Kindness plays a big role in how good a relationship feels.

How science discovered the power of kindness

Dr. John Gottman has spent over 30 years exploring what makes love work. Starting with his Love Lab in 1986, Gottman’s team spent decades observing people in relationships, noting behaviors and gathering data.

Studies began with newlyweds.  As the couple discussed their relationship, researchers measured their heart rates, blood pressure and even sweat levels.

Following up 6 years later, researchers brought the couples back to study their interactions again.

They divided the couples into two groups: those who stayed warm and positive together (relationship masters) or those who divorced or remained married but unhappy (disasters).

During interviews both sets of couples outwardly looked calm. But when measuring signs of a stress or survival response, the two groups differed widely.

For disaster couples, the lab instruments signaled full-scale alarm. The partner’s presence triggered a response as if to life-threatening danger – fight or flight.  Their heart rates sped up and their skin broke a sweat, as their nervous systems prepared to defend against a threat to their very being.

Gottman’s observers noted unhappy couples expressed criticism and contempt toward each other. A climate of hostility had taken over their relationship. They physically reacted to each other as a source of danger.

Relationship masters had a different physiological response to being together. Low levels of arousal – lower heart rates and sweat rates – prevailed. Their bodies signaled increased physical comfort and safety in each other’s presence.

The difference between good and bad relationships may just be kindness

Why did alarm and contempt escalate for relationship disasters, while calm connection prevailed for masters? 

Gottman noticed kindness – actions to deliberately cultivate a climate of warmth and acceptance – abounded in happy relationships. These partners noticed, appreciated and fondly returned each other’s small requests for a response.

Masters paid positive attention almost every time their partner asked for it.

Relationships need small acts of kindness shown often to work well

Love masters kindly returned gestures for emotional connection 86% of the time, Gottman’s team observed. The smallest acts of kindness in everyday settings – like responding to a comment — are enough. No grand gestures or special destinations are required.

Kindness connects and affirms each person’s value to the other: You matter. I see you. I value you, so I’ll treat you gently and with respect, even when we fight or disagree.

“Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved” noted the interviewer after meeting John and Julie Gottman.

Kindness is more than a nice social habit. It’s fuel for a relationship that functions as a base of strength and security for facing the world.

How hard is it to act with kindness?

Can the science of kindness help us make the world a better place?

It depends on how much we practice kindness.

Kindness is a choice, a practice. We get better at kindness by doing it.  Studies show that performing kindness generally improves individual happiness, health and wellbeing.

Here’s one case in point. An international research team asked people simply to count the kind acts they performed every day for 7 days. At the end of the week-long study, researchers measured how the people felt emotionally. They found all participants reported greater happiness – some even a large increase.

The researchers concluded:

The most important finding reported here is the close association between kindness and happiness i[n] everyday life….

Kindness contributes to good social relationships and can thereby be viewed as adaptive….

Accordingly, if people experience positive emotions and optimal social conditions as a result of their own kindness, an upward spiral may be created…. We conclude that our “counting kindnesses” intervention might be a useful tool for the deliberate promotion of well-being.

Otake K, Shimai S, Tanaka-Matsumi J, Otsui K, Fredrickson BL. HAPPY PEOPLE BECOME HAPPIER THROUGH KINDNESS: A COUNTING KINDNESSES INTERVENTION. J Happiness Stud. 2006;7(3):361-375. doi:10.1007/s10902-005-3650-z

In simpler terms:

  • Just focusing attention on kindness made people feel happier in a week.
  • People who feel happier tend to become more kind and grateful.

Simply counting kindness can boost happiness whether the other person involved is a stranger or someone you know. As this 2019 study shows, it doesn’t matter whether there’s a strong tie or weak tie between the people giving and receiving the gesture. And it doesn’t even matter if the act of kindness is prescribed, rather than freely given.

After a tough year, kindness might be our best tool to make things better

Kindness – the effort to search for and mention the good you see in another – appears to be the number one factor that glues humanity together in positive relationships.

It’s a skill you can build on you own – a capacity you practice and strengthen. It’s not like a trait some have more than others, say the Gottmans.

What does kindness in a close relationship look like? Basically it involves:

In our community we can:

  • Move a neighbor’s garbage cans to the street (or back) on trash day
  • Say please and thank you
  • Let someone go first through a door
  • Carry someone’s bags
  • Pick up some trash in the community
  • Be extra polite

Kindness helps us feel more stable, nurtured, and stronger together. It enables respect and cooperation even despite differences.

After a tumultuous year, many of us crave safety and wellbeing. The path there may well be through kindness.

We are here for you

If you would like to enjoy more kindness and wellbeing in your life and relationships, we are here for you. 

Please call us to work with one of our skilled counselors.

Call us at 703-768-6240

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