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The Healing Power of Kindness

girl in field with rabbit

The Healing Power of Kindness

In 1978, researchers conducted an experiment to examine the effects of diet on heart health.  Over several months, they fed a control group of rabbits a high fat diet and monitored their blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol.  As expected, many of the rabbits showed fatty deposit buildup on the inside of their arteries, yet researchers discovered something that didn’t make sense.  Although all the rabbits had a buildup, one group surprisingly had as much as 60% less than the others.  The rabbits were all the same breed from a virtually identical gene pool.  They each received equal amounts of the same food.

The scientists struggled to understand this unexpected outcome.  Eventually they turned their attention to the research staff.  As they pursued this they discovered that every rabbit with fewer fatty deposits had been under the care of one particular researcher.  She fed the rabbits the same food as everyone else, but as she fed them she talked to them, cuddled and petted them.  She did more than simply give the rabbits food; she gave them love.  It seemed unlikely that this could be the reason for the dramatic difference, but the scientists could see no other possibility.  So they repeated the experiment, this time tightly controlling for every other variable.  When they analyzed the results, the same thing happened.  The rabbits under the care of the loving researcher had significantly higher health outcomes.

In 2020, Dr. Kelli Harding published a book titled The Rabbit Effect that takes its name from the experiment and examines the profound impact that love, connection, and kindness have on our health.  What truly makes us sick – and what can make us healthy? Groundbreaking new research shows that love, friendship, community, and our environment can have a greater impact on our health than anything that happens in the doctor’s office.  For instance, chronic loneliness can be as unhealthy as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day; napping regularly can decrease one’s risk of heart disease; and people with purpose are less likely to get sick.  Dr. Harding concluded, “What affects our health in the most meaningful ways has as much to do with how we treat one another, how we live, and how we think about what it means to be human.”

Terry Pfau DO, HMD

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