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New UCLA institute will study — and spread — kindness

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 9/25/2019 Teresa Watanabe
a man and a woman looking at the camera: WESTWOOD, CA - SEPTEMBER 23, 2019: Arlene Winnick, right, participates in a mindfulness training class inside the chapel at UCLA Reagan Medical Center on September 23, 2019 in Westwood, California. Winnick says the training has helped her cope with being a caregiver to her partner with AlzheimerÕs Disease. © UCLA WESTWOOD, CA - SEPTEMBER 23, 2019: Arlene Winnick, right, participates in a mindfulness training class inside the chapel at UCLA Reagan Medical Center on September 23, 2019 in Westwood, California. Winnick says the training has helped her cope with being a caregiver to her partner with AlzheimerÕs Disease.

A friendly smile. A food pantry donation. Or, a remarkable act of Los Angeles benevolence — allowing a driver to cut in front of you.

Such acts of kindness have a self-serving upside, too, as science has conclusively shown they also make you healthier.

Now UCLA is poised to advance that science with the Wednesday launch of the world's first interdisciplinary research institute on kindness, which will explore, for instance, how and why being nice to others reduces depression and the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Research by UCLA scientists already has shown that mindfulness and kindness actually alter the behavior of genes, turning down those that promote inflammation, which can lead to heart disease or certain cancers, and turning up the activity of genes that protect against infections.

But the ultimate goal of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute is to spread kindness and promote a more humane world. It will develop training tools to help practice kindness and spread them through online programs, public lectures, media outreach and a free app called UCLA Mindful, which already is available. A $20 million gift from the Bedari Foundation, established by philanthropists Jennifer and Matthew C. Harris, will provide seed funding for the institute's research projects.

"In the midst of current world politics, violence and strife, the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute seeks to be an antidote," said Darnell Hunt, dean of the UCLA division of social sciences, which will house the venture.

Researchers agreed on an academic definition for kindness: an act that enhances the welfare of others as an end in itself. When it comes to kindness, the intention, rather than the outcome, is key. In other words, it's the thought that counts, as the adage goes.

Kindness is complimenting someone to make them feel good, not to get what you want. It's sending a donation to a charity even if the check gets lost in the mail. It's contemplating a legitimate reason why a driver who cuts you off might be in a hurry.

"Cultivating kind thoughts increases the frequency of kind actions, and both the thoughts and the experience of engaging in the actions have positive effects on the well-being of the individual," said Daniel Fessler, UCLA anthropology professor and the institute's inaugural director.

Already, a range of UCLA researchers are studying the types of questions that will be the basis of the institute's work, which will focus on three themes: the roots of kindness, how to promote it, and how to use it as a therapeutic intervention to improve mental and physical health.

Fessler said humans have come to dominate the globe, despite their relatively small size, because of their unparalleled ability to cooperate.

"As troubling as violence and cruelty are in our society, the actual level of positive cooperation is astounding at an evolutionary level," he said. "Our species is a hyper-cooperative one. No other species is engaged in such a large level of cooperation among individuals who are not kin."

But, he noted, humans also have a long history of violent inter-group conflict and cruelty. One researcher, UCLA sociologist Aliza Luft, is exploring cultural factors that not only promote cruelty but also lead some members of the dominant group to choose kindness instead — such as those "righteous Gentiles" who risked their lives to save Jews from Nazi persecution and the Holocaust.

Fessler and other anthropologists are studying how kindness can be contagious, spreading among individuals and groups. In one UCLA experiment, people who watched a video clip of someone showing kindness were more likely to donate money to a children's hospital than those who watched a video without altruistic actions. The researchers had given each participant $5, showed the videos, then turned their backs as each person decided whether to place any money in an envelope — padded to conceal the contents.

UCLA researchers also have shown that kindness can significantly ease depression and anxiety. Michelle Craske, a professor of psychology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, has demonstrated that patients who received compassion training to cultivate joy, gratitude, loving-kindness and generosity, and engaged in kind acts — offering to help coworkers on projects, for instance — significantly reduced their depression. The improved mental health lasted throughout the six months researchers followed the patients, she said.

Craske plans to start a similar research project with high school students at risk of depression in the Imperial Valley and is expanding efforts to help UCLA students. Sharing the techniques of mindfulness training, she hopes, will help combat what many experts say is a national rise in mental health problems among students. Craske also is developing virtual reality tools to simulate positive environments that can help boost people's sense of well-being.

Michael Irwin, a psychiatrist and neuroimmunologist, and his colleagues have published several studies that found mindfulness and kindness actually change the brain and behavior of genes. One ongoing study of caregivers to people with Alzheimer's disease has found mindfulness training — methods to focus on the present, aided by slow and deep breathing — reduced problems with sleep and depression. The free app developed by his UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center at the Semel Institute offers several meditations that cultivate mindfulness and kindness.

Arlene Winnick, one participant in the study, said she was initially skeptical of what she thought would be "woo woo" mystical practices. But she said the simple techniques work, helping her sleep, relax and feel more energized as she deals with the stressful demands of caring for her partner with Alzheimer's.

She frequently uses the mindfulness app when stressed and attends community mindfulness sessions, which are offered in the chapel of the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center. On Monday, she joined several others who sat upright with eyes closed in the hushed chapel as session leader Marvin G. Belzer led them to focus attention on the present — the ambient sound, the rhythm of their breath, the feel of their hands.

"They saved my life," Winnick said of the practices.

To spread such healing is why Jennifer and Matthew Harris wanted to start the Bedari Kindness Institute, named after the first syllable of the names of their three children: Beckett, Dakota and Riley.

Harris, a UCLA alumnus whose gift will fund the institute, leads a global energy industry investment firm. He said his own struggles, through trauma and addiction, to eventual self-acceptance, made him realize the importance of cultivating kindness to oneself and others. He said the current state of partisan politics, environmental challenges and continued violence and war gave him a sense of urgency to help out.

"My end goal is to have a broad platform to promote empathy and help people think about kindness," Harris said. "It is, in terms of the perpetuation of our species and the ability to live with each other and nature, critically important."

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