When you are kind to another person, even in a small way, it has a positive effect by helping that person feel valued and supported. If you make such acts of kindness a regular habit, it’s actually good for your health and even slows your body’s aging process, research suggests.

“Two culprits that speed the process of aging are free radicals and inflammation. But remarkable research shows that the oxytocin [hormone] that we produce because of emotional warmth reduces the levels of both culprits in the cardiovascular system and so slows aging at the source,” says David Hamilton, author of “The Five Side Effects of Kindness: This Book Will Make You Feel Better, Be Happier & Live Longer.”

In addition, oxytocin — known as the love or bonding hormone — triggers the release of a molecule known as nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels and reduces blood pressure, protecting the heart.

The benefits don’t stop there, Hamilton says. “There’s also a strong link between compassion and the activity of the vagus nerve, which regulates heart rate and controls inflammation levels in the body,” he notes.

Boost to the immune system

Even small acts of kindness, such as sharing a smile or holding the door for someone, give your immune system a boost, making you more resilient and less anxious or depressed.

Experts think this is probably because of our brain’s primitive “negativity bias.” To survive and evolve as a species initially, we had to be constantly on alert for danger. Today, we still focus on fear-based thoughts — think of it as an air traffic controller who is always on duty — to protect ourselves from harm. Making kindness a habit can act as an antidote and result in our being more positive, happier and healthier.

A six-week study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that meditating on compassionate thoughts toward yourself and others, even about people you dislike, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and elevates the levels of dopamine (the feel-good hormone) in our brain. In this study, participants reported an increase in positive feelings, well-being, social connections and relationships.

Random acts of kindness also make us feel grateful. That’s because when we help others — through say, volunteering — we become more aware of the blessings in our own lives.

Kindness fosters self-care

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed another benefit from spreading kindness. The study showed that when participants had a sense of purpose in their lives they were more likely to take better care of themselves by practicing preventive health care.

More good news: Being kind gets easier with practice. Just like a muscle gets stronger with regular training, a similar process occurs in the brain when you make kindness a habit.

“It’s about training your behavior and in turn, your neural circuits,” Hamilton says. “When kindness becomes a habit, we start to produce ‘happy chemicals,’ like dopamine and oxytocin, more consistently, and that makes us feel good.”

Because of this positive feedback loop we’re encouraged to repeat the behavior, he says.

The ripple effect

Kindness is also contagious.

“When we’re kind, we inspire others to be kind. And studies show that it creates a ripple effect that spreads outward, just as a pebble creates waves when it’s dropped into a pond,” Hamilton says. “Acts of kindness ripple outward, touching others’ lives and inspiring kindness everywhere the wave goes.”

Spreading kindness is the mission behind Megan Murphy’s Kindness Rocks Project, which she started in 2015. Murphy, a certified professional coach and SCORE business mentor, began to decorate river rocks with supportive messages and leave them for strangers to discover. Her rock project has become a movement.

“It’s easy to become overwhelmed by negativity in the world and become anxious or depressed,” says Murphy, author of “A Pebble for Your Thoughts: How One Kindness Rock at the Right Moment Can Change Your Life.” “It can have an adverse effect on your health.”

Instead, the Kindness Rocks Project combines art and messages of kindness to help participants feel good about creating and giving. “It’s actually a healing process because you are giving to the world what you would most like for yourself.”

4 ways to start a kindness habit

Need ideas on how to start a kindness habit? Here are some suggestions from Hamilton, including a challenge:

Make a list of people in your life who you feel need help or assistance in any way. You might not always be able to help, depending on their needs, but you might find that some people just need someone to talk to, so they know someone cares.

As you go through your day, be alert to opportunities to be kind. These occur all the time but we often miss them because we have too much on our minds. When we make a decision to be alert to them, we notice many more.

Think of five people in your life and make a list of all the reasons why you are grateful for their presence in your life. This will help you build a habit of thinking kindly.

Try the seven-day kindness challenge: That means, do at least one act of kindness every day for seven days. Ground rules: Do something different each day; push yourself out of your comfort zone at least once and be sure one of your acts of kindness is anonymous — no one should ever find out who did it.

9 ways to show you care

• Check in on an older adult who doesn’t get out much.

• Drop off a toy or game for kids in need at a hospital or homeless shelter.

• Call a friend to check in and let the person know you’re thinking of him or her.

• Pay a bridge toll for someone behind you in line.

• Listen, really listen, to someone who needs to talk or tell his or her story.

• Put money in someone else’s parking meter that’s about to expire.

• Pay for someone’s groceries or gas.

• Give someone who isn’t feeling well enough money to drive or get a ride to the doctor.

• Buy pet food or treats and drop them off at the animal shelter.

 

This article originally appeared on NextAvenue.org.