Sunday, May 19, 2024

Q&A with Immaculata De Vivo and Daniel Lumera




Immaculata De Vivo and Daniel Lumera are the authors of the new book The Biology of Kindness: Six Daily Choices for Health, Well-Being, and Longevity. The book was translated from Italian to English by Fabio De Vivo. Immaculata De Vivo is Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. Lumera is an expert on quality of life and well-being.


Q: What inspired you to write The Biology of Kindness?


Immaculata: The inspiration came from my first meeting with Daniel. We met in October of 2019 at a scientific meeting in Milan. I was presenting recent scientific data about the impact that certain kinds of behavior - such as meditation - have on biology, specifically, their effect on telomeres.


Telomeres are the parts of DNA that serve as biomarkers of aging. While DNA is mostly immutable, telomeres are influenced by our lifestyle and have an impact on physical health, helping to buffer premature aging and decrease the incidence of chronic disease. So life experiences shape telomeres.


Daniel was presenting on the practice of meditation, and he led us in a meditation session during the meeting. I have been involved in meditation and mindfulness for a while now - since my (graduate student) days at Columbia University - so I was very receptive.


Daniel was very enthusiastic about the implications of the mind-body approach to health, and after the meeting he suggested we write a book on the topic. I thought he was crazy! I’ve authored many original research papers and chapters in cancer textbooks, but I had never written a trade book. I suggested that we write an editorial entitled “Biology of Kindness,” as that would capture the imagination of not only the scientist but also the public.


Let’s just say Daniel is wonderfully convincing …Then COVID happened, and my lab at Harvard was shut down, so I said, “OK, let’s write a book on two different continents!” And the rest is history!


Daniel: I have been involved for about 30 years in establishing bridges between science and spirituality, or rather, between modern sciences and ancient spiritual wisdom, whose values are very important for health, well-being, and the quality of our lives. Working on a popular project like the “biology of values” -  that is, the translation into biological terms of how certain values affect our bodies - resonated strongly with me and directly aligned with my life's purpose.


Also, being able to collaborate with Professor De Vivo is an honor and a privilege. For me, she represents science that has a heart. Our task from the beginning has been to give science a heart and spirituality a brain.


Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about being kind?


Immaculata: That being kind requires hard work, and that if you don’t experience kindness growing up, it’s impossible to learn.


Daniel: The word kindness (gentilezza in Italian) recalls a sense of politeness, gentleness, and sweetness – the qualities of being lovable. In Latin, gentilis derives from gens, meaning an extended family group, a clan to which one belongs. Gentilem in Latin means “belonging to the gens”—that is, an aristocratic family—a social condition associated with qualities such as courtesy, politeness, and grace. These were not only formal external behaviors, but also real inner feelings: the nobility of the soul that expresses itself through virtues.


Kindness goes beyond the common meaning of good manners. It is a social value of fundamental importance that shapes a sense of belonging with no need to argue, compete, make enemies, or fall back on our primary instincts, fears, and emotional wounds. 


Belonging to “gente” (“people” in Italian) is an inclusive state of being whose characteristic elements are empathy, courtesy, kindness, and the spirit of service. Thus, at that time, being gentile required and still implies today a nobility of mind capable of expressing that sense of belonging based on mutual recognition, respect, and benevolent care.


Kindness, as an indispensable and essential social principle, should be the basis of any relationship between human beings so that they can relate in the most useful, charitable, and elevated way possible. The seed of genuine kindness, like the lotus flower, has the power to grow and blossom even in the mud.

Q: The writer and academic Robert J. Waldinger said of the book, “The world desperately needs this book right now. As we risk losing our moral compass, De Vivo and Lumera muster hard scientific evidence for the guiding principles that will help us survive and thrive.” What do you think of that description?


Immaculata: Let me say that I have the utmost respect and admiration for Robert and am a huge fan of his work. One of his best lines about how embracing community helps us live longer and happier: “Good genes are nice, but joy is better” was clearly an inspiration for our book. When I read his description, it was like a seal of approval that our work will also inspire people.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


Immaculata: This book satisfies lovers of science with its cutting-edge findings, but it also has a lovely self-help aspect to it which will appeal to many readers who are looking for a purpose in their lives.


Daniel: I would say, something very simple and concrete like accepting the challenge to do four acts of kindness every day.


The first towards oneself, which means respecting your own rhythms, and understanding your deep and personal needs, not those relating to social or economic reasons.


The second is an act of kindness towards another person, and it must be unconditional and heartfelt.


The third is towards an animal and the fourth towards nature, for the protection of our planet. Small actions every day, with the awareness of what you are doing, can really make a difference.


Another kindness practice that I would like to recommend is loving-kindness meditation. In a culture dominated by knowing how to “do,” can you explain the importance of knowing how to “be”? Knowing how to “be,” unlike knowing how to “do” or how to “have,” is what allows us to really understand our inner world and to manage both our emotional and cognitive dimensions. This essential dimension relates to one’s purpose and vocation.


Q: What are you working on now?


Immaculata: I’m currently spreading the message of our book and possibly teaching an undergrad class at Harvard on the concepts in the book. I’m also revising a chapter for a cancer textbook, updating the latest science on endometrial cancer, the cancer that has been the focus of my research since 1998.


Daniel: As a result of this book, in 2020 the International Kindness Movement was born. Over 55 cities in Italy have joined the movement, developing more than 63 social projects in schools, hospitals, and prisons, involving 350,000 people.


And all this started from a small act of kindness, when the readers of Biologia della gentilezza (Biology of Kindness) decided to buy a book for themselves and also donate a copy to a school, a hospital, a voluntary organization in their city, or to leave it in a bookstore as a gift for another reader, thus creating a real network of kindness.


By improving our mood, health, and state of mind, we will be able to take better care of others and together we will create a new world of kindness. I’m working to expand this movement in Spain, Mexico, and hopefully in the USA as well. I think it’s very much needed nowadays.


Q: Anything else we should know?


Immaculata: This book is one of my greatest professional joys. I have always been curious about the science behind certain behaviors/lifestyles, and technological and scientific advancements have allowed me the privilege of studying this on a deeper biological level.


I practice most of the strategies mentioned in the book, so I know from personal experience the benefits of eating well, physical activity, meditation, an optimistic outlook, and being surrounded by supportive friends and family. I knew that these lifestyle choices had improved my quality of life, and I wanted to understand the underlying biological reasons for this.


Daniel: This book contains very powerful practical concepts. Our existing organizational models have been designed on a paradigm that has been invalidated by the most recent scientific data. Those who are best suited to survival are actually the kinder amongst us. This is because we are a species that cooperates.

We know that survival is a question of adaptation, but for a long time our society has interpreted this adaptive capacity in terms of strength and oppression. However, new scientific evidence –significant data which have only begun to clearly emerge in recent years – shows that adaptation is a result of cooperation, and of a specific biology of values.


If, as those data show, the individual best suited to survival is the one more open to change, then we need to understand what steers that change. Immaculata and I have identified five values: kindness, optimism, forgiveness, gratitude, and happiness. These values should be nurtured every day, and you need a strategy for that.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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