The Kindness of Strangers

Posted by on Jan 13, 2014 in Uncategorized | 3 comments

Black and white TV screen noise texture pattern“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire, 1947

This quote is one of the most widely used and widely recognized quotes in the world. I imagine that one of the reasons for its recognition (besides the brilliance of Williams’ writing) is that kindness, particularly random kindness, is such an unexpected gift. And when it occurs, it affects individuals on a cellular level. Yet, so many of us are caught up in our daily lives, our challenges, our joys and our sorrows, that we often need to be reminded that an extended hand can alter another person’s day. Most importantly, kindness does not need be tangible; bestowing a simple smile, a wave or wishing another well is one of the most valuable acts of self that can be shared.

It strikes me that the more crowded our lives become, the less likely we are to recognize the degree to which we are self involved and how it may affect the people we encounter very day. No more is this evident than on social networks, where, the endless ‘me me me’ updates have simply become white noise. Ironically, that white noise may actually be detrimental to our health, but not for the most obvious reasons.


Help others. Help yourself.

Research has shown that there is a link between positive emotions and physical health. And while experts have not yet fully teased out the ‘how’ and ‘why,’ they have been able to demonstrate that positive social connections beget positive emotions, which beget increases in vagal tone,  a proxy for physical health.

Vagal tone reflects how well or how poorly the vagus nerve is functioning. And importantly, the vagus nerve is directly linked to nerves that control and coordinate where our eyes focus, how we express emotions on our faces and how our ears respond and tune to human voice. While vagal tone is mostly stable, there is evidence that sustained positive emotions and social perceptions may actually promote its functioning. This is important because when vagal tone is optimized, it boosts activity in the nervous system that helps slow heart rate, and calms and relaxes. Recent study findings also suggest that people can actually steer themselves toward greater health by harnessing, if you will, the power of vagal tone, simply by learning to generate positive emotions through loving-kindness meditation.

Loving-kindness meditation is a type of meditation practice that focuses on developing positive intention and kindness and warmth toward others. In women, it has been shown to significantly lengthen telomeres, the DNA structures at the ends of chromosomes that scientists consider markers for aging. Over a lifetime, telomeres shorten and this shortening is often accelerated by cellular inflammation and chronic psychological stress. While meditation practice has generally been associated with positive health benefits, the benefits of this particular form of meditation that focuses on the well-being of others appears to be especially strong in women, perhaps because they are inherently more empathetic or tend to focus on caregiving.

Want to break through the white noise? Today, I challenge you to practice one act of kindness toward a stranger or someone who you don’t know very well. Tomorrow, I challenge you to do the same. Not only will your gift of kindness benefit the recipient, but you may find that it changes your physical and mental wellbeing in ways that are not immediately tangible.





  1. 1-13-2014

    I love this and am up for the challenge.

  2. 1-13-2014

    I’m in!

  3. 1-14-2014

    So sad we have to be challenged to do this. Hopefully we’ll find we are being more kind than we realize.

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