The Most Important Factor for Wellness Has Nothing to Do With Food, Exercise, or Time Management

Sure, diet and exercise matter, but this essential ingredient for wellness is often overlooked.


"Across the country, everyone is looking for a cure for what ails them, which has led to a booming billion-dollar industry -- what I've come to call the Wellness Industrial Complex," reported performance couch Brad Stulberg for Outside Magazine this summer.

From "detox IVs" to "crystals for better energy," Stulberg goes on to document the current mania for any trick, technology, or outlandish practice that might make us feel a little happier and healthier despite the world's many worrying ills.

But there's one big problem with these interventions. "So much of what's sold in the name of modern-day wellness has little to no evidence of working," Stulberg writes.

What does? You already know the basics. Eat food, mostly plants, not too much, in writer Michael Pollan's famous formulation. Move your body regularly. Have friendsSleep.

All of which is fundamental, but none of it is surprising. But according to a new book by Columbia University psychiatrist Kelli Harding, there is one more essential piece of the wellness puzzle that few of us think about enough. And unlike tarot cards and "detox tea," this factor actually makes a huge difference when it comes to your happiness and health.

It's kindness.

The science of kindness and health

We all know that both our diet and our genes play key roles in our health, but back in the 1970s when scientists gave a group of genetically identical rabbits the same unhealthy, high-fat diet to see how it affected their hearts, they noticed that some of the rabbits were doing surprisingly well despite their gross diet.

The difference couldn't be their food or their genes, as those were carefully controlled to be the same. So what was the magic factor protecting some of the rabbits?

"They looked around and realized what was different about that one group is that there was a researcher that wasn't just giving the rabbits kibbles. She was actually picking them up. She was petting them. She was talking to them. She was giving them love and kindness," says Harding in a Knowledge@Wharton interview. That's why her new book on the under-appreciated role of kindness in wellness is titled The Rabbit Effect.

What's true for bunnies is true for humans. Whether you live a long, healthy, happy life or a short, stunted one has a great deal to do with whether the world metaphorically picks you up and cuddles you or just hands you kibbles through the door of your cage.

"We spend a fortune on medical care in this country -- far more than other countries per capita. But we're not getting the health results we want ... it's probably because we're really doubling down on the medical care and not investing in our social world the way that we could," Harding argues.

Hugs before healing crystals

This truth suggests the need for changes to our medical system -- more support for the vulnerable, a more personal connection with health care providers, etc. -- but it also suggests simple and wildly effective changes individuals chasing wellness can make in their day-to-day lives.

"The hug you give your child or your spouse when you walk out the door makes a difference, and not only with them. There's this really exciting science of epigenetics and telomere research that shows that loving actions actually change our physiology," Harding explains.

Kindness shouldn't stop when you walk into work in the morning. A softer touch in the office can make a massive difference too. "Studies have shown that the strongest predictor of a man's death from heart disease isn't cholesterol or blood pressure. It's his job," she continues. "Everyone knows it's important to have a good doctor, but it's also important to have a good manager."

A gentler office environment can literally save someone's life (think about that next time you're feeling snappy after a long day).

You no doubt learned the importance of kindness, empathy, and friendship way back in kindergarten. This isn't some sexy biomedical breakthrough. But in a current world often categorized by viciousness, division, and desperate zero sum thinking, it's worth remembering that, if you're chasing wellness, kindness is one of the basics. And unlike a lot of what's sold under the "wellness" banner, it actually has solid science behind it.

Basic decency matters a whole lot more than any biohack or expensive gizmo. So save yourself some money, skip the crystals, and focus on hugs and thoughtfulness instead.

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