Imagine being the reason someone smiles today. Makes you smile back a little bit in return, doesn’t it? Whether you’re acting kind, or someone’s been kind to you, chances are it feels good for all involved. It’s no coincidence, kindness IS contagious, so the more we do kind things, the kinder other people end up being, too. In psychological terms, this is known as activating mirror neurones, or ‘modelling behaviours’, like when someone smiles at you, you can’t help smiling back.
If that wasn’t a good enough reason, science shows that kindness also helps benefit our health, both physically and mentally. You don’t need grand gestures, money or much of an imagination to make someone’s day while giving yourself a boost at the same time. Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXA PPP healthcare, shares the psychology of kindness and some of the ways we can all benefit.
We’re made to be kind
“We’re biologically wired to be kind – it’s human nature. That’s not to say everyone behaves kindly, we know that’s not true – many of us can be unkind, either intentionally or through lack of awareness. Sometimes, through outside influences or the stress of our day-to-day lives, we can lose this inherent ability. But it is possible to learn to be kinder, to develop this trait with practice and repetition.”
In fact, research has found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help. A study by researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin–Madison shows that adults can be trained to be more compassionate. Researchers asked: “Can compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?” Their evidence points to yes.
Darwin observed that humans have an enormous capacity for prosocial, cooperative and altruistic behaviour. That is, we’re all capable of kindness if we choose.
Giving is good for you – the health benefits of being kind
Research shows that we may benefit from giving support more than those receiving it - and we're also more likely get support in return when we need it.
Kindness helps minimise anxiety
Aggression, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety are all major problems in society today. According to the Mental Health Foundation nearly half (43.4%) of UK adults think that they have had a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their life (35.2% of men and 51.2% of women). A fifth of men (19.5%) and a third of women (33.7%) have had diagnoses confirmed by professionals.
Could practicing kindness be a cure?
“In short, yes”, says Dr Winwood. “While there’s no magic ‘one-size fits all’ solution, there are many (proven and anecdotal) ways to reduce feelings of anxiety, such as meditation, exercise, prescription, talking therapies medications, and natural remedies. But one thing not really talked about is how being nice to others can actually be one of the easiest, most inexpensive ways to keep anxious feelings at bay. You see, as the giver of kindness, you can reap the psychological reward – in other words, it feels good to be nice.”
In fact, according to research from Emory University, when you’re kind to another person, your brain’s pleasure and reward centres are activated, as if you were the recipient of the good deed—not the giver. This phenomenon is called the “helper’s high.”
Kindness reduces stress
Helping others lets you get outside of yourself and take a break from the stressors in your own life, and this behaviour can also make you better equipped to handle stressful situations. Scientists have found that perpetually kind people have 23% less cortisol (the stress hormone) and age slower than the average populationi.
Dr Winwood explains: “Doing nice things for others helps boost your serotonin and dopamine levels, the neurotransmitters in your brain responsible for feelings of satisfaction, reward and wellbeing. Like exercise, kindness and altruism also releases endorphins, that euphoric feeling that money can’t buy.”
Physically, making others feel good can also affect the actual chemical balance of your heart. Kindness releases the hormone oxytocin (also known as the ‘love hormone’), which causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide in blood vessels, which dilates the blood vessels and lowers blood pressure.
Giving is good for society
German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once described kindness as ‘the golden chain by which society is bound.’
“When we give to others it activates the areas of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust. It can make us feel closer to people, it creates community. When we have communities or ‘tribes’ of like-minded people helping each other out, it helps reduce feelings of social isolation and loneliness” says Dr Winwood.
One common description of loneliness is the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships is not metii and it’s widely reported as a contributing factor to mental health conditions like depression. Not feeling like we have anyone to share our problems with can impact on our psychological mental resilience. When times get difficult, it’s good to talk and share how you’re feeling, which is why social connection is important.
Kindness is contagious!
Apparently, the positive effects of kindness are experienced in the brain of everyone who witnesses a kind act, improving their mood and making them significantly more likely to “pay it forward.” This means one good deed in a crowded area can create a domino effect of kind deeds and positivityiii.
Tops tips to kindness
Try these simple 10 random acts of kindness to make someone’s day:
- Smile at someone – it will make them smile too!
- Open the door for someone
- Let someone go ahead of you in a queue
- Give up your seat on public transport to someone who might need it more
- Ask someone how they are – and meaning it. It could be a colleague you know might be struggling, or family member
- Put your phone down when you’re with a friend or loved one – recognising and acknowledging they’re important by really listening and being interested in what they have to say
- Surprise a friend with a coffee and cake
- Ask an elderly neighbour if they need help with anything
- Offer to babysit for a friend who might need a break
- Give a compliment!
iThe impact of a new emotional self-management program on stress, emotions, heart rate variability, DHEA and cortisol. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 1998
iiMind – Loneliness