Like most vegans and vegetarians, I didn’t make the switch to a more compassionate diet for just one reason. Everything from the health benefits of a plant-based diet to the environmental impact of factory farming to the needless suffering inflicted on farmed animals motivated me to go meatless.
But more than anything, I stopped eating animals for two reasons: I finally understood that human rights and animal rights were linked, and I realized that caring for animals had always been good for my health.
What I didn’t know at the time? There are documented health benefits to practicing kindness. A wealth of scientific research shows that humans are genetically rewarded for being kind, and it’s really not that surprising. The fact is, our species probably wouldn’t have survived this long if we weren’t instinctually driven to work for the common good. But practicing kindness is more than just a successful evolutionary strategy—it’s medicine. Kind people live longer, healthier, happier lives, and science backs this up.
In one study at the University of California, Berkeley, nearly 50 percent of participants said helping others left them feeling calmer, stronger, and more energetic. And because kindness stimulates the production of the “love hormone” oxytocin and the “feel-good” chemical serotonin, those people also reported greater feelings of self-worth.
Practicing kindness also decreases stress, anxiety, and depression. According to the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, perpetually kind people have 23 percent less of the stress hormone cortisol, which is part of the reason they live longer than average. And for anxious people, practicing kindness is an effective addition to any treatment plan. In a University of British Columbia study, a group of highly anxious people performed six acts of kindness each week for a month. At the end of the study, all participants reported a significant increase in positive moods and relationship satisfaction, and socially anxious participants reported a decrease in social avoidance.
Earlier this year, research conducted by the Born This Way Foundation found a direct link between kindness and mental health in teens and young adults. After surveying 3,000 people between the ages of 15 and 24, researchers discovered that young people who described their academic, home, and work environments as kind were more likely to be mentally healthy.
But being kind is great for more than just our mental health and overall happiness. Studies show that practicing kindness relieves pain and decreases high blood pressure. People who volunteer typically experience fewer aches and pains, and helping others protects overall health twice as much as aspirin protects against heart disease. For these reasons and more, kind people are far less likely to experience premature death. Dr. Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, explains:
People 55 and older who volunteer for two or more organizations have an impressive 44 percent lower likelihood of dying [early]—and that’s after sifting out every other contributing factor, including physical health, exercise, gender, habits like smoking, marital status, and many more. This is a stronger effect than exercising four times a week.
Information like this reinforces what I knew to be true the day I stopped eating meat: Being kind to farmed animals isn’t just good for the animals—it’s good for me too.
As a species, we’re genetically programmed to feel good when we make compassionate choices, yet our diets often contradict this. Over 56 billion farmed animals are killed by humans each year. Animal agriculture is responsible for 91 percent of Amazon rainforest destruction, and many scientists believe that the demand for meat is driving Earth’s sixth mass extinction. Eighty-two percent of the world’s starving children live in nations where food is fed to farmed animals, who are then killed and eaten by people in developed countries.
Clearly, factory farming has been anything but kind to humanity, animals, and the planet we all share.
So the next time you sit down to eat, please practice kindness by leaving animals off your plate. Not only will you be one less person hurting animals, people, and the environment; you’ll be protecting your own health and happiness in a multitude of new ways.