We all know that kindness is good for those who receive it, but it is also good for the giver too. Acts of kindness make us happier and healthier, they relieve the symptoms of depression and they even help us live longer, healthier lives.
When we show kindness, oxytocin flows in our brains and bodies. In the brain, it reduces anxiety about being betrayed or taken advantage of, encouraging us to be more trusting. This is a win-win scenario for everyone. And in the body, oxytocin is cardioprotective. It protects us from hardening of the arteries, it dilates our blood vessels, reduces blood pressure, encourages wound healing, helps in the construction of foetal hearts and may even help in the regeneration of the heart following damage.
It is produced when we connect with each other and a large number of studies now show that good relationships are good for our health. In fact, they are cardioprotective, probably because they produce oxytocin. People in healthy relationships are at lower risk of heart disease than people who are single. Being around people is also good for us. So get good at making friends and be there for them when they need it. Social isolation is also associated with a greater risk of heart disease.
Kindness is actually of paramount importance for us even as babies. When a baby is born, the love, care, joy, play, compassion, tenderness and responsiveness of the primary caregiver mould the structure of its brain. The orbitofrontal cortex is formed almost entirely after birth and this is the part that is responsible for helping a child to become emotionally well-adjusted and able to make responsible, mature choices. We all have a responsibility to help the children of the world develop through showing them great love and care.
Positive emotions are good for us
Gratitude is another practice that can make a difference in our lives. It is an expression of kindness because in counting our blessings we are saying thank you to someone or to the world or even to God. Gratitude can make us happier, alleviate symptoms of depression and even help us get a good night’s sleep. It also helps build and strengthen relationships.
Forgiveness, too, is good for us. It is a process that helps us to get over emotional pain. It also reduces anger and depression. It is something that we do for ourselves, not the offender. And it can leave us with a greater sense of optimism and hope for the future.
Empathy is often the starting-point for kindness. We sense and share another’s pain, compassion arises and we begin to wish them free of their pain, and then we are motivated to do something kind to help.
Kindness and compassion help us live longer
Compassion also happens to be good for us. It strengthens the immune system. It even buffers the effects of stress and can help us live longer.
Scientists now believe that ageing is actually like a disease, that the possible lifespan of the human body far exceeds what we currently live to. They believe that inflammation is a primary cause of ageing and are excited at the prospect of finding a new anti-inflammatory drug that can combat it.
But the drug, as we now know, isn’t a drug but a nerve. The vagus nerve is the primary brake on inflammation in the body. It stops the collateral damage caused by the dripping tap of inflammation.
We can stimulate the vagus nerve through kindness and compassion. Kindness produces oxytocin that tickles the vagus nerve in the brain and reduces inflammation throughout the body. Compassion also stimulates the vagus nerve. So does the deep breathing that we do in meditation.
We have far more control, then, over the ageing process than we think. We have known for a while that having a healthy diet and exercising can prolong our lives. Evidence that has emerged recently shows that having a positive attitude also makes us live longer. But now we must add kindness and compassion to the lifespan. No longer can we just think of kindness as something that can benefit others. At the deepest biological level in the body, it benefits us too.
We’re wired for kindness
And this is, as we know, because we’re wired for kindness. Evolution has set up the human body to be at its best, its healthiest, when we’re around friends and loved ones. Evolution has always been about survival. Kindness, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness and having friends and loved ones to share with and depend upon are what got our ancestors through perilous times. We are here today because our ancestors were kind to each other. And we will be here tomorrow, and a little bit longer, if we are kind today.
So kindness is highly beneficial to us, but it is not just for us. It is for those we help too. In fact our primary motivation, when we are being kind, is to help.
At heart, we are good people. We have evolved that way. And when we express our goodness by being kind, everyone around us benefits.
The 21-day Kindness Challenge
My challenge to you is to do an act of kindness every day for 21 days.
Where do you start? First, get a really nice journal – something that feels soft and special, that feels appropriate for what you are filling it with.
Then, as you carry out your acts of kindness over the next 21 days, record what you did and how it made you feel. Note how it affected the person, or people, you were kind to – that’s if you know, of course. And try to vary your acts so you’re not doing the same thing every day.
From Why Kindness is Good For You, ©2010 by David Hamilton, published by Hay House.