How practicing kindness meditation makes you and the people around you live happier and healthier lives
August 14 2019 - 5 min read
By Erika Hoopes
Do you ever catch yourself having judgmental thoughts about others? Or about yourself? Or do you sometimes lash out and say or do things you wish you could take back?
We’ve all been there. Our minds have become quite good at noticing the negative and reacting to it. We are experts at criticizing ourselves, and we probably criticize others more often than we’d like to. We’d like to be kinder to ourselves, and a little less judgy, but we can’t seem to let go of our fault-finding nature. Why is this, that we humans tend to be so critical?
Our brain has a negativity bias.
On average 70% of the thoughts that pop into our minds are negative ones! We likely evolved in this way for a good reason－to keep us from harm and help us survive. But now, we notice everything that is unpleasant or negative way more often than we notice the good things! So when it comes to how we see other people, our relationships, and ourselves, our minds are hyper-aware of what’s wrong. Sound familiar at all?
Well this is not our fault, it’s just how the brain is programmed. But luckily, the brain can change, and we can change it! All we need is some training. So, where do we start?
Kindness meditation, traditionally called “metta,” or “loving-kindness”, helps us train our “kindness muscle” and create space for more love and less criticism in our lives. And the practice is actually quite simple. It goes something like this:
You can begin your meditation with awareness of the breath to help you settle in. Then you shift into the kindness practice. Generally, you start by thinking about someone you love, bringing them into your awareness, and then mentally “wishing them well.” You might repeat phrases in your mind like “may you be happy” and “may you feel loved.” To continue, you do this for someone you don’t know very well, like the barista at a cafe or your last uber driver. You might even do this for someone whom you don’t like very much. And then, perhaps even the most difficult, you also do it for yourself. The practice often ends by expanding your wishes to include all living beings. That’s essentially all there is to it－could last a few minutes, or a few hours. It might sound a bit strange, but according to science, these mental affirmations are extremely beneficial, and not only for defeating our negativity bias.
Kindness is good for your health.
Studies show that kindness meditation effectively increases our positive emotions and enlarges the area of the brain that is responsible for emotional regulation. It can also decrease signs of aging, slow down our respiratory rate, and help us relax and reduce our stress-response.
When you train your kindness muscle, you also increase your capacity for empathy and compassion and become more responsive to the distress of others. Consistent kindness meditation has been shown to even decrease implicit social biases based on race, gender, class, etc. This makes you much more likely to express kindness to everyone by saying and doing kind things, and actually being kind is good for your health too!
When we are kind, we release the feel-good hormones associated with love, energy, a sense of security, even longevity! These hormones are good for heart-health, lowering blood pressure, healing wounds, and calming the nervous system. When we are unkind, the opposite is true, and we face increased levels of pain, stress, anxiety, and blood pressure.
One more amazing thing about training our own capacity for kindness is that it will not only help us, but it also has the power to positively impact everyone around us. Why is this?
Kindness is contagious.
Yes, contagious, and scientifically-proven so.
When someone is kind, the hormones they release in their brain are also released for the person “receiving” kindness, and for everyone who witnesses the act of kindness! Then the domino effect rolls in. Everyone who witnessed that kindness has a surge of positive hormones, resulting in their becoming kinder and doing kind things as well. And it comes full circle: all this increased kindness helps people defeat their negativity bias, making the world a more positive place overall! Just by practicing kindness in your own mind, imagine how much health and happiness you can spark.
Of course, even with all this kindness in our lives, negative thoughts will still come up sometimes that we can’t control. But that’s okay, we don’t need to. Meditation helps us become more mindful of these judgmental thoughts and tendencies, and therefore we don’t have to give them any power. So when we catch ourselves with negative thoughts, we can more easily let them go and connect with the feelings of love and appreciation that we’ve been cultivating in our kindness practice.
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