Physicians Anonymous

Kindness for physicians

Kindness for physicians: good for everyone

At a recent Physicians Anonymous meeting, we discussed an article on random acts of kindness. Researchers gave 84 random people in a wintry Chicago park free hot chocolates. They were then given the choice to gift it to another or keep it for themselves. Guess what happened?

89% of people gave it away. Not only that, but they underestimated how their gift would impact the recipient. The givers consistently underestimated how much it was actually appreciated, and the receivers got a bigger happiness boost than the givers expected.

The best part? They repeated the experiment (modified a bit) with free cupcakes and it showed the same results. Also, people who got a cupcake because of an act of kindness evaluated themselves higher on a scale of happiness than participants who got one simply for participating in the study, suggesting that the kindness receivers got an emotional lift from the act, more than the free delicious pastry itself.

What is kindness?

Kindness is typically defined as the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. Random acts of kindness are acts performed by a someone wanting to positively affect another person, sometimes a stranger, or not. 

Kindness is a quality of being. The act of giving kindness often is simple, free, positive and healthy.

As Psychologist Steve Siegle writes, “Kindness is more than behavior. The art of kindness means harboring a spirit of helpfulness, as well as being generous and considerate, and doing so without expecting anything in return. “

Kindness is more than behavior. The art of kindness means harboring a spirit of helpfulness, as well as being generous and considerate, and doing so without expecting anything in return. “ – Steve Siegle

Medicine, burnout, and kindness

In modern medicine, we are pumped full of facts in an increasingly compressed medical school curriculum where medical knowledge advances exponentially, without a commensurate increase in training time.

Corporate medicine/under-resourcing forces us to see patients in 7.5-15 minutes. Rational clinical decision making amidst growing complexity, demand, and risk, overrides emotion and compassion.

Overwhelm, burnout, moral injury, emotional exhaustion, and the physical exhaustion of such crazy long hospital shifts, can all lead our natural kindness to falter.

Under all this pressure, it’s no wonder our natural human kindness wears out. We then start to show professional ‘kindness’ rather than human kindness. After that we may become indifferent, or in extreme cases unkind.

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible." —Dalai Lama

Evolutionary theory

It is natural for humans to show kindness because it elicits reciprocity – which gives a social advantage. You scratch my back / give me this food / help me hunt this woolly mammoth / etc.

But it seems we are also wired to give without expectation of reciprocity. The evidence below suggests that giving does something positive to the giver when no reward is expected.

Kindness: good for the body

Kindness – basically, voluntarily helping others — can help to reduce stress, decrease blood pressure, and the stress hormone cortisol. Kindness promotes longevity and overall health. For example, if we spend more money on others we are generally happier, and if we volunteer to help others, we are generally healthier.

People who give of themselves have more connectivity with others, which can directly impact loneliness, improve low mood and enhance relationships in general.

Kindness: good for the mind

Physiologically, kindness can positively change your brain. Being kind boosts serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, resulting in warm fuzzy feelings, satisfaction, and even pleasure. Kindness has been shown to increase self-esteem, empathy, and compassion, and improve mood. It also can be contagious. Looking for ways to show kindness can give you a focus activity, especially if you tend to be anxious or stressed in some social situations.


Doctors are especially good at verbally beating themselves up, which only hurts themselves more. It is not just how we treat other people — it is how we treat ourselves. We believe that through practice, we can be kinder in our own self-talk, for example by practicing gratitude or self-compassion.

Take kind action

If physician burnout, specifically emotional exhaustion is affecting your kindness, perhaps it’s time to tackle the burnout? Get professional coaching help, take time off work, find a different job.

It may be controversial, because when it comes to emotional and caring energy, we believe in the mantra that we cannot pour from an empty cup. And we need to apply our own Oxygen masks before helping others.

Yet this doesn’t seem to apply to kindness. Simple acts of giving help both giver and receiver, with no drain on energy.

As the hot chocolate and cupcake experiments, and other research like the simple act of texting a friend showed, mean more to the recipient than we may appreciate

Conclusion: kindness for physicians

  • Simply asking “How am I going to practice kindness today?” could be a start. Even a smile is an act of kindness. 
  • Consider joining Mayo Clinic Health System’s Kickstart Kindness program to start your kindness journey. The program offers many ideas of how to extend kindness.
  • The Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) Blog has a fantastic article on 50 RAKs to do.
  • Physicians Anonymous is gearing up for a Healthcare Kindness Wave – watch this space!