What’s the Secret to Health and Happiness? Be Kind to Yourself, Scientists Say
It seems that the mystery of what gets us through life’s rough spots and makes us healthy and happy, isn’t really such a mystery, after all. According to the latest research, improved health and happiness occurs naturally when we are kind to ourselves.
By responding to life’s challenges with self-love you’ll likely increase your resilience, remain healthier, and may even experience more fulfilling relationships.
Like the song says, “try a little tenderness.”
“Treat yourself as you would a good friend,” says psychologist Kristin Neff, renowned for her pioneering research into the health benefits of self-compassion.
“Self-compassion involves being kind to ourselves when life goes awry or we notice something about ourselves we don’t like,” she says. “Self-compassion includes the recognition that the human condition is imperfect.” So when we fail, we don’t have to take it personally; we can actually feel connected to others and their struggles.
Self-compassion also involves mindfulness, which includes recognizing and accepting painful emotions as they arise. Ultimately, cultivating self-compassion frees you from constantly having to seek outside approval and helps you to develop an intrinsic sense of self-worth.
Try these simple exercises to develop self-compassion
- Write yourself a letter of support, just as you might write a letter to a friend you are concerned about.
- Talk to yourself in a gentle tone using encouraging words.
- Use soothing touch.
“Put both hands on your heart or your belly or your cheeks or on the top of your head, or even just give yourself a hand massage… do whatever feels right to soothe yourself,” says Neff, who has developed an 8-week program to teach self-compassion skills.
Soothing ourselves in this way, she says, taps into our primitive care-giving system and that triggers the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin, the same hormone released when a mother nurses a baby.
Research shows that such nurturing fosters resiliency, helping us bounce back after major crises. Scientific studies also show that practicing self-compassion can improve many health problems like stabilizing blood sugar in diabetics, increasing immune function, and lowering blood pressure.
Given all these positive benefits, it’s hard to believe that 50 percent of us aren’t self-compassionate; in fact, we’re routinely hard on ourselves. Sadly, 80 percent of us are more compassionate toward other people than we are with ourselves.
Why are we our toughest critics?
The answers lie both in our biology and in our environment. It may seem crazy that we need to learn to be kind to ourselves but the simple truth is that self-compassion doesn’t come naturally. That’s because our brains haven’t changed significantly in thousands of years; we’re still wired to respond first and foremost to the primitive survival instinct that once kept our ancestors alive. Not surprisingly, survival, which includes being self-critical, takes priority over everything our brains are responsible for doing.
But today, the very mechanism that should ensure we stay alive is backfiring, causing, “an epidemic of depression, isolation, and loneliness,” according to James Doty, MD, clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University School of Medicine and founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.
According to Dr. Doty, our fight-or-flight survival mechanism is being triggered relentlessly by a bombardment of information in our constantly changing, technologically sophisticated world. We feel under attack every day, causing us to experience chronic stress and fear, and release damaging hormones that can lead to headaches, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and deterioration of personal relationships. Stress-induced physical disorders include increased risk for heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke, ulcers, gastrointestinal problems, as well as back and neck pain.
Luckily, science has ways to help us cope.
Mindfulness meditation is a good place to start, says Dr. Doty. Meditation keeps us in the present moment, decreasing our fear and anxiety. The shift in focus during meditation has the added benefit of turning off our self-critical thoughts and allowing us to feel self-compassion, he says. In fact, if you are practicing mindfulness, you are practicing self-compassion simultaneously.
And there’s more good news: our brains can learn new tricks. Scientists call it neuroplasticity, a word that basically means we can rewire our brains to develop new ways of thinking and acting, using some proven techniques such as mindfulness and bodywork.
How long does all this take?
Everyone’s experience is different, Neff says, but women generally have a harder time becoming self-compassionate than men do. Women have often been raised in a culture that instills in them the idea that they should put everyone else’s needs before their own and feel ashamed of their bodies.
Katie Hendricks, PhD, a pioneer in the field of body intelligence for more than 40 years, adds, “We really need a consciousness raising so that women change the way they see themselves.”
Hendricks, who teaches workshops to help women develop positive body image, recommends they start the process of learning self-compassion by questioning why they wear what they wear. Take, for example, those stiletto heels.
“You can’t run in them. You can barely walk. They are no better than the foot-binding that the Chinese did to young girls,” she says. Some of the tight skirts are no better, she adds. “So few women look good in a skirt that makes them look like a sausage.”
What we wear has a profound impact on how we feel, and our ability to move comfortably, so Hendricks advises women to rethink their wardrobes.
“Can you breathe?” she encourages you to ask yourself. “Are you comfortable and can you move freely in what you’re wearing? If you can’t breathe and really move freely and comfortably, then you really aren’t emotionally free and you aren’t loving yourself.”
So how do you transition from wearing high heels and tight clothing to a state of freedom and self-compassion?
Hendricks says the secret lies in identifying negative programming and using bodywork and other self-compassion techniques to change it. “We’ve been conditioned to think we should all look like Julia Roberts in the movie Pretty Woman, and when we don’t think we meet those standards, we feel small,” she says. “If you feel small, you can change that pattern by standing up and putting your arms out so you will occupy more of your space.”
This isn’t some crazy New Age idea — it’s based on real science
What “fires together, wires together,” explains Hendricks. Repeated experiences create nerve cell patterns in our brain, and every time we learn or do something new, we’re changing our brain by expanding our network of nerve cells.
So based on this scientific knowledge, you could foster greater self-compassion using this exercise:
When you catch yourself having a self-critical thought, stop, take three relaxed belly breaths and shift the position of your body, Hendricks advises. The combination of breathing and a change in your body position interrupts the pattern of criticism that’s been running in your brain. Then, give loving attention to yourself — make a new choice that feels good. You could even pick one hand and kiss it, she adds.
Where compassion and self-compassion meet
Believe it or not, being compassionate toward others, helps you too. Here’s how it works: research shows that it doesn’t matter whether we show compassion to ourselves or to someone else, we receive the same physiological benefit of the feel-good hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin generates feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness. And it’s released not just when a mother nurses her offspring but every time you give or receive a kind word or a soft, tender caress. Our thoughts and emotions have the same effect on our bodies, whether they are directed to ourselves or to others.
When we take all of this expert advice to heart, not only will we feel better, so will everyone around us. All we need to do is to pay attention and begin to introduce small acts of kindness toward ourselves — and others — to experience less stress and more health and happiness.