The power of a hug

hug illustrationA hug is wonderful when you feel sad, stressed, tired and even when you feel good.

I love what the Free Hugs people do when they stand in a city centre holding a ‘Free Hugs’ sign. Their hugs produce human connection, vulnerability, smiles, laughter, positive emotion, and even sometimes tears, especially if it’s the first hug a person who has been suffering has experienced in a long while.

Hugs are also good for the heart. They increase our levels of the hormone ‘oxytocin’, which as well as being known for its role in trust, childbirth, and breastfeeding, is also a powerful ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. This basically means it helps protect the cardiovascular system.

From what? You might ask. From the negative side-effects of poor dietary and lifestyle choices and also from mental and emotional stress.

Oxytocin works by producing nitric oxide in our arteries, which then widens (dilates) our arteries. Nitric oxide helps our arteries stay flexible and also helps reduce blood pressure.

So, ultimately, hugs are cardioprotective too. And I’d say so for more than simply their oxytocin-and-therefore-nitric-oxide-inducing power, but because they make us feel relaxed, cared for, even loved. Hugs are medicine for the soul.

I remember crying in front of my mum and dad when I found out our beloved dog, Oscar, had osteosarcoma and was unlikely to live beyond a few months. Mum hugged me and I melted, collapsed in her arms. I felt like a child again, being loved by and tended to by my mum.

I think we have that memory of being tended to by our parents as children, where we were upset or in pain and we knew that ‘everything is going to be OK’, ‘the pain will go soon’, or ‘it’s OK, Mum (or Dad) will fix it’. It’s a memory held deep in the unconscious but whose emotions are released in our adult lives when we receive a hug.

So hugs are medicine for the heart and they are medicine for the soul. If we could bottle hugs, we would take our daily dose without question.

Here’s the thing, you can have a daily dose. You don’t need to wait to be hugged. You can hug others.

As a typical Scottish male (OK, I’m not really able to speak for my entire nation but I’ll make a generalisation based on my 45-year-old observations), hugging didn’t come naturally to me. To be honest, I felt like a sissy if someone hugged me. I’d do the whole, awkward, chest-held-back-not sure-about-touching thing, followed by a little pat on the back, secretly hoping that the hug would end soon.

But I learned to enjoy hugs. I think it happened when I was in my late 20’s and Mum (again to the rescue) looked after me for a week while I suffered a bout of depression. It was the first time in my adult life I opened up to someone. I think something shifted in me then, a willingness to open up to others that I’d not showed before. I then became an initiator of hugs.

Even in the bar on a Thursday night after work (that was our standard weekly visit), I’d say goodbye to my friends at the end of the night with a hug. At first, some of them were a little awkward but soon got the hang of it too. It came natural to some others. But within a month or two, a hug was the standard goodbye for us after a few drinks in the bar.

So I’d add that hugs are also contagious. As we hug others, we share a connection. It opens us a little. It feels good. And that makes it contagious.

So given the medicine that hugs carry, that they are free, and contagious (in a good way), it might be a good idea to see if you can add a few more hugs to your day.

You’d be doing yourself a favour, but each time you hug you also deliver a gentle dose of medicine to the heart and soul of another person too.

And that is the power of a hug.

The 5 Side-Effects of Compassion


pink rose background
As an ex-pharmaceutical scientist, I enjoy reframing the term ‘side-effects’. We typically think of side-effects in the negative, as in the side-effects of drugs. But many of our positive behaviors also have side-effects.

Below are 5 side-effects of compassion.

1) Compassion Wires the Brain

In some ways we can think of the brain like a muscle in that as we exercise certain regions they grow, just as muscles do when we exercise them.

Compassion causes growth on the left side of the brain’s prefrontal cortex region, which is the bit above the eyes. The effect of this is that we find it easier to be compassionate and kind. Compassion begets compassion through creating actual changes in the brain.

2) Compassion is Good for the Heart

Compassion fosters warm emotional contact. When we connect with others in this way, we produce the hormone ‘oxytocin’. One of its key roles is in the maintenance of cardiovascular health. It dilates the arteries and reduces blood pressure and also helps clear out potentially disease-causing agents.

3) Compassion Slows Ageing

Research shows a strong correlation between compassion and ‘vagal tone’, which is a term that describes the health and fitness of the vagus nerve, much as muscle tone describes the muscles.

The vagus nerve controls the body’s inflammatory response (knows as the Inflammatory Reflex). As we increase vagal tone, we improve the body’s ability to reduce inflammation. Research indeed shows that a practice of cultivation of compassion, where volunteers practiced the Loving Kindness Meditation, actually reduced inflammation.

As inflammation is one of the major agers of the body, compassion, through its affects on the vagus nerve, slows ageing.

4) Compassion Improves Relationships

Research shows that compassion improves relationships. It fosters emotional connections between two people. A structured practice of compassion meditation improves the quality of personal and professional relationships.

Compassion also breaks down barriers in relationships with people who challenge us. When we see someone suffering and we are moved to help, we forget reasons why we might have a difficulty with the person as our natural tendency to care takes over. In these moments, we see only good and express only good. Compassion brings us back to ourselves.

5) Compassion Motivates Kindness

When we see someone suffering we feel empathy. Empathy is ‘I feel with you’, as we imagine and share someone’s pain. Empathy evolves into compassion, which is ‘I feel for you’, as we not only share the pain but we want the person’s suffering eased. Compassion quickly evolves into kindness, where we are moved to do something to ease the person’s suffering.

I think of empathy – compassion – kindness as the growth of a flower from a seed. Empathy is the seed that grows into a stem of compassion, which then fully blooms into an act of kindness.

 

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References: David R Hamilton, PhD, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ (Hay House, 2010).

Can compassion beat botox in the anti ageing stakes?

rejuvenation of appleCompassion is not religious business, it is human business. It is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability. It is essential for human survival.’ HH The Dalai Lama

 

For centuries, learned people have searched for the mystical philosopher’s stone, believed to be the elixir of life and give immortality to he or she who owns it.

But what if the philosopher’s stone isn’t actually a stone? What could it be then?

One of the ‘major agers’ of the human body – those phenomenon that play key roles in ageing – is a phenomenon known as inflammation.

Most people have heard of inflammation. It’s the redness and swelling that occurs at the site of an injury. But what most don’t know is that inflammation can also occur on the inside of the body, in the blood vessels for instance, and as a side-effect of lifestyle and stress. As well as ageing, it plays a key role in heart disease, some cancers, and in a number of other diseases.

Its role in ageing is so significant that some gerontologists believe that if science could develop a powerful body-wide anti-inflammatory drug then the average person would live until they were around 150 years old.

Enter, now, the vagus nerve!

We now know that the vagus nerve controls inflammation, so already you might guess that it could play a role in ageing. This discovery was made by Kevin Tracey, director of the Feinstein Institute and Professor and President of the Elmezzi graduate school of molecular medicine in Manhasset, New York. He described the ‘Inflammatory Reflex’ as the process where the vagus nerve actually shuts down the chemistry of inflammation.

Some research into prolonging lifespan is studying exactly how the vagus nerve does this. It’s interesting to drug companies because they want to develop drugs to do the job.

But maybe the wonder drug isn’t necessary. Maybe what we need to do is train our vagus nerves in much the same way that we train our bodies at the gym. Could this be possible?

It seems so, but the training is not physical. It is more spiritual. It is training in compassion.

According to research by Berkley professor of psychology, Dacher Keltner, the association between the vagus nerve and compassion is strong. People who have high ‘vagal tone’ tend to be highly compassionate.

Vagal tone is a term a bit like muscle tone. Someone who exercises regularly might have good muscle tone. Similarly the person might also have good ‘vascular tone’. Vagal tone is used in a similar capacity to indicate the health, fitness, activity, etc, of the vagus nerve.

Could training ourselves to be more compassionate – and we can indeed train ourselves because compassion is only partly innate but mostly learned – improve vagal tone and also reduce inflammation, thus slowing the ageing process?

In a word: Yes!

Scientists have indeed recently studied the link between compassion and inflammation.

In a 2009 study, researchers at Emory University School of Medicine trained 33 people in a compassion meditation, which involved the structured generation of feelings of compassion on a daily basis, and compared them with a group of 28 people who didn’t do the meditation.

After 6 weeks those who did the compassion meditation had much lower levels of inflammation than those who didn’t. Drawing on the link with ageing, we can say that their bodies were also ageing more slowly too.

I attended a workshop recently that was led by Sharon Salzberg, an author and globally recognized authority on ‘loving-kindness’. She is a teacher of the ‘loving-kindness meditation’, where we cultivate a sentiment of loving kindness and compassion for ourselves, our loved ones, neutral people, difficult people, and for the whole world. It is her daily ritual, which she has been practicing for decades. The first thing I noticed about Sharon was that she absolutely does not look her age.

I was stunned to learn that she is 60 years old. I would have estimated, perhaps, mid to late 40s. Although my observation is by no means an exhaustive scientific study, it was an interesting observation given that I am very much aware of this phenomenon because I studied it so that I could write about in my book, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’.

It’s a no brainer, really:

-The vagus nerve reduces inflammation.

-The fitter the vagus nerve, the better its ability to do this.

-Compassion tones up the vagus nerve.

-So more compassion equals fitter vagus nerve, therefore equals lower inflammation, therefore equals slower ageing.

-ie. More compassion = slower ageing!

Could compassion even beat botox? You decide!

Could it be that the philosopher’s stone that many have searched so long and hard for has always been right in front of our eyes? Well, actually, in our hearts? Could it be that simple?

History has taught us that things usually are that simple. Maybe it’s called the Philosopher’s stone because it takes a philosopher to actually consider compassion to be the elixir of life.

Some might ask why it is that compassionate people everywhere aren’t living until they’re over a hundred? Firstly, some of them are, but we also counter the effects of it with other lifestyle choices we make and with stress. Genetics also comes into the equation. But all things considered, I’m quite convinced that compassion slows ageing. I’m told that I don’t look 93. 🙂

So here’s my healthy formula for a long life:

Eat well, sleep well, exercise regularly, laugh often, think well, be kind, and show people that you care about them!

Perhaps this formula is the mystical philosopher’s stone. Perhaps the stone is not a stone, but a Way, the philosopher’s Way.

And that way is compassion!

May you be filled with it!

 

LINKS

Here’s a link to a short video where I talk about compassion and ageing.

Here’s a link to a workshop that might interest you, where I’ll be teaching the loving-kindness meditation.

Here’s some audio downloads that might interest you where I explain more about the mind-body connection

Here’s a link to my book, Why Kindness is Good for You.

Here’s Sharon Salzberg’s website

 

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Why Empathy is Important

little boy who is sad
For some reason I’ve been having a lot of conversations about empathy recently.

Empathy has been defined in the scientific journals as ‘I feel with you‘, as distinct from compassion, which has been defined as ‘I feel for you’. With empathy, we share another’s pain and we are very aware of the effects of our actions on them. With compassion, our focus moves a little in the direction of wishing them freedom from their pain.

You can actually see the difference in the brain. Empathy lights up the insula, which is an area of the brain that connects the flow of information between the front of the brain and the emotional areas, whereas compassion sees many of the same areas lit but with the addition of the prefrontal cortex (left side), which is the area above the eyes that is involved in decision making.

US President Barack Obama spoke of the need to fill the ’empathy deficit’ in the world. On 11th August 2006, he said,

You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this – when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers – it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

Empathy moves us to share in another’s pain, to really see the world through their eyes. When we do, it very often changes the kind of decisions and actions we take. When empathy is in full bloom, many things change and it does becomes almost impossible not to help.

I read an article in the UK Guardian (or it might have been The Observer) about 6 months or so ago. I wish I’d kept it but the jist of it was that something in the region of 95% of the top people in the banking sector were effectively sociopaths – people who completely lack empathy. That’s a startling statistic. It was from a psychologist’s assessment.

It means that many of the financial decisions that affect us personally and globally are devoid of empathy. In a real sense, we are viewed as statistics, numbers, profit margins, transactions. Personally, I want to be viewed as a person with feelings.

I really feel for Greeks (and Spaniards) who are being hit with extreme austerity due to the Euro crisis at the moment. As I read article after article, it pains me greatly to see the difficulties they are enduring. I find myself welling up as I read some of the personal accounts.

I’m not an economist and I really don’t understand how the financial systems of the world work, but maybe if the decision makers showed a little more empathy – actually put themselves in the shoes of those who are suffering – then decisions might be made differently. I don’t know, really. I can imagine it’s a tough job for politicians, many of whom are trying to juggle their options to make things best in the long term.

But I just can’t help feel that there’s a bit of an empathy deficit going on. Maybe that’s just my analysis, but it feels like my intuition. I wonder how things would work out if there was more empathy. I wonder what type of solutions we’d search for. I wonder if a different, better solution will emerge. I pray!

Empathy moves us to consider the actions of others when we make decisions. In difficult times, I feel that it is crucial for making the best decisions. Empathy (and compassion) might have been viewed as soft in the past, but I think having the courage to show empathy and compassion is the sign of strength. For me, it would be the sign of a leader.

In fact, in leadership terms, a leader is someone who can inspire others to help. Surely empathy is crucial for this. It is crucial, I believe, in building strong relationships. I personally think that as our world becomes more and more interconnected, and cooperation and communication become more important than ever before, then empathy is going to be the new currency for thriving.

Start today. Look at people who are suffering and try as best you can to imagine the world through their eyes.

I think that if more of us did that, then the world could be a different place. A better place. That’s my opinion anyway.