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How Kindness Could Improve Your Brain Health This Christmas

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We humans are social animals: we live in groups, form long-term bonds and care for each other.

Behind the scenes, we are also guardians of each other’s nervous systems. Here’s what I mean. Your brain works day and night to keep your body healthy by regulating its resources like water, oxygen, salt and glucose. This regulation is like a budget for your body. Actions that replenish your resources, like eating and sleeping, are like deposits.

Actions that consume resources, like getting out of bed in the morning, getting your heart racing while you read quietly, or protecting your immune system from viruses, are like withdrawals from your budget. Some withdrawals are even healthy, like exercising and learning new things — they’re like investments that pay dividends later.

Anything that makes budgeting more effective, like supporting a loved one, is like a savings account. Anything that makes your budgeting less effective, like being around someone who is unpredictable, judgmental, or even harsh and insulting, is paying a little tax. This is a simplified explanation, of course, but it captures the key idea that managing a body is not a solo activity: body budgeting is influenced by other people.

Coordinated body budgeting often has visible effects. Physiological changes in one person’s body often lead to similar changes in another person’s body, whether the two are involved in a romantic relationship, just friends, a parent and child, or strangers meeting for the first time.

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If you raise your voice, or even your eyebrow, you can affect what goes on in other people’s brains, and therefore you can affect their heart rate or the chemicals carried in their bloodstream. For the best or for the worst. If a friend is in pain, you can ease their pain simply by holding their hand. You can also increase their suffering by ignoring or rejecting them.

Body budgeting can be especially difficult during the holiday season. There are dueling vacation tropes: the warm, loving family reunion and the nightmarish genre. If your holiday dinner is a cozy affair, you’ll reap the benefits of your body budget. But if the main event at the dinner table is a drunken Uncle Edgar and bossy cousin Kiki in a no-holds-barred taunting match, then it’s budget taxes all around.

So here’s the takeaway as we enter the holiday season: the best thing for your nervous system is another human. The worst thing for your nervous system is also another human. Close relationships do us good. We tend to live longer if we have them, and get sick and die earlier if we have them. socially isolated or constantly feeling lonely – possibly years earlier, based on the data. Without outside help to manage your body budget, you carry an additional burden.

With that in mind, it can be helpful to visit even very difficult people during the holidays for the benefit of your future self, so that you don’t feel regret later. Regret is a painful emotion that can be a drain on your body budget that can last for years. And here’s a tip: if you make yourself predictable to others, they’ll likely be more predictable to you, which will translate into savings on your body budget.

Also, when meeting friends, family, and co-workers with whom you disagree, try to cultivate a spirit of curiosity rather than being sure that you are right and they are wrong. Who knows, maybe you two will learn something. Granted, it’s a workout for your brain, just like exercise is a workout for your body. So treat it accordingly.

If family gatherings aren’t for you, your body budget can connect with others in different ways. Volunteer to help people in need. Be nice to a stranger. Run an errand for someone who needs a break. (When I’m feeling down, I bake bread or cakes for my neighbors.) Scientific evidence suggests that such moments of kindness can actually improve your health and well-being, especially during times of stress.

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