“The little unremembered acts of kindness and love are the best parts of a person’s life.” (William Wordsworth)
There is a growing body of evidence that kindness is not only good for the world, it’s good for our health. In fact, it may just be a wonder drug. Perhaps someday soon, instead of giving us a prescription for some unpronounceable pharmaceutical, our doctor will advise us to watch Ruggles of Red Gap and bake some cookies for a neighbor.
Kindness Increases Happiness and Reduces Depression
In an April 2014 article entitled, “The Act of Kindness and Its Positive Health Benefits,” published in Underground Health Reporter, Danica Collins reported that there are numerous scientific studies showing that acts of kindness have a positive effect on the body’s immune system, as well as on the production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical created by the human body that works as a neurotransmitter, and has a calming, anti-anxiety effect. Scientists say that an insufficiency of serotonin leads to depression.
Most interesting is the fact that not only does the performer of the kindness benefit from a boost to the immune system and an increase in serotonin production, so does the recipient, and—most surprising of all—so do persons merely witnessing the act of kindness.
Ms. Collins goes on to report that the benefits of kindness don’t stop there. She cites research that people who are routinely kind get relief from chronic pain, stress, and insomnia, and they have increases in happiness, optimism, and self-worth.
Positive Side Effects
Scottish scientist David R. Hamilton, Ph.D., has done considerable research into the health benefits of kindness. He notes that there are five beneficial “side effects” of kindness:
- Kindness makes us happier: Dr. Hamilton notes that kindness elevates the levels of dopamine in the brain, giving what he calls a “natural high.”
- Kindness is good for your heart: He reports that acts of kindness often generate an emotional warmth, which produces the hormone oxytocin in the brain and body, which, in turn, releases nitric oxide in blood vessels causing them to dilate and lower one’s blood pressure, acting as a cardio-protective agent. Oxytocin also reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardio-vascular system, thus reducing heart disease.
- Kindness slows aging: That same reduction of free radicals and inflammation slows aging in the human body. Dr. Hamilton also notes that compassion has similarly been linked to activity in the vagus nerve, which also regulates heart rate and controls inflammation levels in the body.
- Kindness improves relationships: Hamilton claims that connecting with one another is actually a genetic predisposition. He notes that “Our evolutional ancestors had to learn to cooperate with one another. The stronger the emotional bonds within groups, the greater the chances of survival, so ‘kindness genes’ were etched into the human genome.” As a result, kindness builds new relationships and boosts existing ones.
- Kindness is contagious: Just as colds and flu are contagious in a bad way, so is kindness in a good way. “When we’re kind,” Hamilton says, “we inspire others to be kind, and it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends—to three degrees of separation.” As an example of that ripple effect, Dr. Hamilton tells the story of an anonymous individual who donated a kidney to a stranger. It triggered a ripple of family members donating their kidneys to others, the “domino effect” ultimately spanning the breadth of the U.S. and resulting in ten people receiving kidneys as a result of one anonymous donor.
Dr. Hamilton further finds that in extending kindness and compassion, we change our brains. He says that acts of kindness “find their way into the chemistry and structure of our brain. If kindness becomes a habit, we can significantly alter the wiring of our brain.” He likens it to learning a new skill, such as a musical instrument. As we continue to practice, we bring about chemical and structural changes that establish “kindness circuits” in our brains, and we wire ourselves for more and more kindness. We replace negative habits with positive ones, selfish ones with kind ones, hostility with empathy, and complaints with gratitude.
Best of all, there aren’t multiple paragraphs of small print warnings accompanying a dose of kindness. Kindness has never been shown to cause nausea, constipation, diarrhea, skin rashes or drowsiness! Nor should it be avoided if you are operating heavy machinery.
Next time you perform an act of kindness … or you are the beneficiary of one … or you simply witness a kindness, pause and notice all the good things you are feeling. Want to feel that way all the time? It’s easy….
“When you carry out acts of kindness you get a wonderful feeling inside. It is as though something inside your body responds and says, yes, this is how I ought to feel.” (Harold Kushner)