My day talking kindness to young children

I spent a day earlier in the week at a primary school where I was talking to young children about the importance of kindness.

It was a school outside Glasgow, Scotland, on the invitation of my friend, John – aka Mr McLellan. The school has a dedicated ASD unit.

I was a little nervous as I’m not used to speaking to children. Almost all of my talks, lectures and workshops have been for adults. I usually talk a lot about the science of how kindness impacts health, as well as various aspects of the mind-body connection and self-esteem, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to simplify things for the children or even make what I do sound remotely interesting.

John assured me that I’d be fine, that they mostly just want to know what I do and then ask me questions. My first class was John’s class, a small class of 8.

I brought a couple of my books with me and began to talk about my job as a writer. I explained that I’m an ‘author’ and showed them some of my books and various international translations, including the same book in English, German, Romanian and even Japanese, which they found fascinating. I told them that I mostly write and teach about being kind and how important that is.

I asked if any of them knew what being kind meant. A sea of hands shot up, each of the children politely waiting to be asked. I went around them one-by one, amazed as they gave lovely examples of kindness; like helping someone up if they’ve fallen down, saying nice things to people, saying ‘thank you’, paying compliments, holding a door, even being respectful.

After a little more talk about kindness they had a chance to ask questions. Mr McLellan had given them all cards the day before so that they could write their questions and read from them.

One of the first questions was, “What age are you?” so we had a guessing game, followed by another guessing game around how many pages my book has and another about how many words are in it. Faces swelled with pride when they got answers right.

I was also asked things like, “What’s your favourite TV show?” and “Do you have a car? What kind is it?” It was so incredibly nice for the children just to get to ask what they want to know, and I enjoyed it immensely.

I repeated the same thing three more times through the day for children at all ages, including whole-year assemblies for primary 7 children (ages 11 and 12) as well as primary 1 (ages 4 and 5). In one class, I talked about how I went to university and then worked as a scientist making medicines. I asked if any of them knew what a scientist is. Many of could describe some aspects of different kinds of science. Between them, they painted a good picture of what a scientist does. Since my PhD was organic chemistry, which consists of sticking atoms together to make molecules, many of which end up as medicines, I asked if anyone knew what atoms were.

I wasn’t prepared for the following answer from a small boy:

“They’re tiny little particles that make up everything. They’re so tiny you can’t see them and everything is made up of millions of them.” Then he put his finger on the table and said, “I’m touching atoms right now.”

Few adults could give such a precise answer. I was actually speechless. That he mentioned the word ‘particles’ and had a sense of their size and relative quantities just blew me away. He must have been about 9 or 10 years old.

During lunch, I sat in on choir rehearsal, where Mr McLellan played some music that the children sang along to. It was a rehearsal for an audition later in the week for BBC Children in Need.

It took my breath away. These young children, singing together, some looking at each other for comfort or approval, moved me to tears. I can’t quite express in words how moving it was.

As I write this, I still see in my minds’ eye, happy, smiling faces from some of the children I spent most time with in John’s class. Their personalities are infectious. They left a really big impression on me.

The day was an unexpected pleasure for me. As I wrote above, I was a little nervous when I arrived because I’m not used to communicating what I write and teach about to young children, but my fears were unfounded. The children really just wanted to know about me and a little bit about what I did.

I was warmed by how much they knew about kindness, how they were learning at school what it is and how important it is. They were even being recognised for being kind with little awards. I don’t ever remember formally learning about kindness when I was at school, so this was great to see.

Overall, I was deeply inspired by the teachers and classroom assistants too. People often say to me that I’m doing a great job in spreading the word about kindness by writing about it and collecting scientific studies together into books and blogs that others can quote. People call me a kind person for this reason.

To be honest, I don’t see it like that. I really don’t. What inspired me deeply was John and his colleagues. How they were with the children. How they spoke with them, taught them, comforted them. I mentioned to John that he had such a kind and gentle way with the children that you would think he was their parent. These are people – like many other teachers, carers, service workers, etc, all around the world – who are on the front line actually doing the kindness. I write about it. They doit! It really moved me.

I am so grateful that there are so many people in the world on the front-line doing kindness daily, as well as the millions of people who are simply just kind people, acting on opportunities as they present themselves daily.

I think there is a lot more kindness in the world than most of us typically see. The experience has left me with more hope, gratitude, and a good feeling that things are changing for the better, even if it’s not always immediately obvious to see.

The vagus nerve and cancer

DNA with light shining behind itI recently read a scientific paper, published this year in the Journal of Oncology (see paper), with great interest. It linked the activity of the vagus nerve with cancer prognosis.

Why is this important?

I’ve written quite a bit about the vagus nerve in some of my blogs and books (The Five Side Effects of Kindness), mainly because the vagus nerve produces an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. I’ve also emphasised how this effect is even amplified by the experience of compassion.

That’s why I found the paper so exciting because it reviewed 12 scientific studies, involving 1822 patients, and suggested a link between high vagus nerve activity and better cancer prognosis. The effect, the authors wrote, was most likely due to an anti-inflammatory effect created by the vagus nerve.

I’ve summarised the main findings of the paper below.

The authors pointed out that three main biological factors contribute to the onset and progression of tumours. These are: oxidative stress (free radicals), inflammation, and excessive sympathetic [nervous] activity (stress).

Amazingly, the vagus nerve seems to inhibit all three.

Many of the studies measured heart rate variability (HRV), which is the main index of vagus nerve activity. Briefly, when we breathe in, heart rate quickens a little, only to slow down again when we breathe out. The vagus nerve is responsible for the slowing down, and thus the difference between this increase and decrease (high and low) of heart rate – heart rate variability (HRV) – is considered an indicator of vagus nerve activity.

Generally, the paper found that the higher a person’s HRV, or vagus nerve activity (also known as vagal tone), the slower the progression of cancer, and this was true for all cancers studied. The effect was especially pronounced in late stage, metastatic cancers.

The authors suggested that in early stages of cancer, the treatment a person receives is the overwhelming positive factor and so swamps out any observable effects of the vagus nerve, but at later stages, when treatments are often less effective, the vagus nerve’s workings are far more apparent and the vagus nerve becomes the main determining factor.

So much so, in fact, that the authors found that survival time in patients with high HRV (or vagus nerve activity) was 4 times greater than in patients with low HRV (or vagus nerve activity).

The effect of the vagus nerve on inflammation was suggested as the main factor. It is known as the ‘Inflammatory Reflex’. The vagus nerve basically turns off inflammation at the genetic level by turning down a gene that produces TNF-alpha (Tumour Necrosis Factor), which is an inflammatory protein in the body that sets off a cascade of inflammation. Thus, the vagus nerve can effectively control inflammation in this way. Therefore, higher vagus nerve activity usually means lower inflammation.

In one study of patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, for example, patients with high HRV (or vagus nerve activity) survived longer and had lower inflammation levels than patients with low HRV (vagus nerve activity).

The study authors wrote that, the vagus nerve “may modulate cancer progression by inhibiting inflammation.”

The study also showed that tumour markers in other cancers (like PSA – prostate specific antigen – for example) were also lower in patients with highest vagus nerve activity.

So, the question is: can we increase our vagus nerve activity?

The answer is yes.

There are a few ways, in fact, that include:

-exercise

-meditation

-yoga

-practice of compassion

I’d like to draw your attention to the latter because I’ve written about this before and it demonstrates a powerful link between mind and emotions and physical health.

Studies have shown a link between compassion and vagus nerve activity, an idea first put forward by Stephen Porges, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and now widely known as polyvagal theory.

For example, vagus nerve activity has been shown to increase through regular practice of a compassion meditation (the Buddhist’s metta bhavana or ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation). Here, we consistently cultivate a feeling of kindness and compassion for ourselves and others.

The same meditation has also been shown to lower a person’s inflammatory response to stress, presumably via increasing vagus nerve activity.

So, yes, we can increase vagal tone!

For me, this research is extra evidence that exercise, meditation, yoga, and even compassion, offer us far more protection from illness than we have imagined up until now. Now we are beginning to see the underlying biological mechanisms that explain why these practices are so beneficial.

Of course, exercising, meditating, doing yoga or being a nice person doesn’t mean a person will be immune to cancer. We all know that’s not true. But it might mean that they offer us a degree of protection, perhaps lessening the impact of some of the factors that do cause cancer.

Can kindness boost the immune system?

In other blogs, I’ve written how kindness is the opposite of stress in terms of its physiological effects. At first, one might imagine that peace is the opposite of stress, but peace is more the absence of stress than its opposite.

In a number of different ways, kindness produces opposite effects from those that stress causes.

It is very well known that stress supresses the immune system. Part of this is due to the stress hormone cortisol. So effective is cortisol in suppressing the immune system, in fact, that millions of people use it every day as hydrocortisone cream without realising that hydrocortisone cream is cortisol, but in cream form. It acts to reduce inflammation (part of the immune response), which is why it is used to treat conditions like eczema, itching, and rashes.

When we are kind, at the very least it spares us some stress and so, by default, allows the immune system to work more optimally by minimising cortisol production.

But can kindness do more than this and even enhance the immune system?

The Mother Theresa effect was named after a Harvard University study where volunteers watching a video of Mother Theresa carrying out acts of kindness and compassion experienced an immune boost.

In the study, researchers took secretory immunoglobulin-A (s-IgA) samples from 132 volunteers before and after watching the video. Found in saliva, it is the immune system’s first line of defence if a person eats something that’s contaminated, and is generally considered a fairly good indication of overall immune function.

After watching the film, their s-IgA levels were significantly elevated and remained elevated for a while afterwards as the volunteers kept thinking about particular scenes from the film.

In a different experiment, researchers at the HeartMath Institute, in Boulder, Colorado, asked volunteers to cultivate feelings of care and compassion for just 5 minutes. Similarly, they also received an immune boost, with s-IgA levels increasing by around 50% and again staying elevated for some time.

Empathy is a relative of kindness. One might think of empathy, in fact, as the seed that grows into kindness. It starts when we feel moved by the pain of a person (or animal). This is empathy – I feel your pain. It eventually evolves into a willingness to act to ease the suffering or to help in some other way.

A randomised controlled trial of 719 patients with the common cold found a connection between empathy shown to them in a doctor’s consultation and how quickly they recovered, indicating a link between empathy and immune function.

In the study, the volunteers were asked to rate how much empathy they were shown during a consultation. This is by no means meant as a criticism of doctors. There are a number of reasons why a doctor might be perceived as not showing empathy, which can include having so many patients and almost always be under time pressure, which sometimes means having to fill out forms while consulting.

Anyhow, each patient was asked to score the doctor for empathy shown to them on a 1-10 scale, using a CARE questionnaire (Consultation And Relational Empathy). Of those who scored the doctor a perfect 10 (around a third of patients), they had reduced severity of symptoms, recovered faster and also had higher immune function.

In each of the above studies, the effects are likely because of how empathy and kindness make us feel. Feelings generate biochemical products. For example, feelings of stress generate stress hormones (including cortisol). Feeling happy generates dopamine and serotonin. Feeling uplifted or excited can produce the brain’s natural versions of morphine. It is also known that feelings associated with empathy and compassion produce oxytocin. It seems that they also produce products that alter immune function.

So, to answer the question in the title of this article, I’d say, Yes. It seems to me that kindness can boost the immune system.

 

References

All references are cited in David R Hamilton PhD, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness‘ (Hay House, 2017)

The right thing to do

elderly woman smiling with her caregiverI was in Chicago for a couple of days recently. Among many things, one thing that stood out for me was the number of homeless people who were not asking for money. One was just a young girl, who couldn’t have been more than 18. Some of their cardboard signs said things like,

Please. I’m not looking for money. I’m just hungry and cold” and “Can you spare some food, please?

Many of us mistakenly imagine that homeless people will spend money on alcohol or drugs. They just wanted food. But on that point, even if they would spend money on alcohol; how many of us, after a hard or stressful day at work, reach for a glass of wine or a beer as soon as we get home. It offers us comfort and an escape, of sorts. Why should it be different for homeless people, given the stress they live under? I guess I’m saying that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

So, for the rest of the day, each time I saw such a sign, I popped into a shop to buy a sandwich, or something sweet or even warm and offered it to them. They were immensely grateful. In turn, I felt absolutely great inside.

Now, I’m not at all trying to impress you. Any kindnesses I do are tiny in comparison with the acts of kindness done daily by millions of people around the world. What I wish to convey is that I often come across the attitude (mostly in science and with males), that kindness is selfish if it makes you feel good.

Some say, if it feels good then you’re not doing it for them, but for yourself. That I felt so good about buying food for these homeless people got me thinking about this. And here’s the thing.

The reason kindness feels so good is because deep down we know it’s the right thing to do. When we help someone, we align our actions with our core – our core identity. We are genetically wired for kindness. The kindness gene, in fact, is 500 million years old – it’s one of our most ancient genes – which is WHY kindness impacts our biochemistry (see ‘Molecules of Kindness‘ and ‘Born to be Kind‘). It’s our deepest nature.

Helping others makes us happier because were sensing that deep feeling of rightness, that ‘This is who I am!!’ … ‘This is what it’s really all about!!’. Being kind touches that deep part of ourselves that cuts through all the crap and reveals a feeling of joy. Kindness doesn’t just make us feel good, it reveals joy.

Let me say that again. Kindness doesn’t just make us feel good. It reveals joy.

It cuts away the blocks to joy, to happiness, to peace.

So my answer when anyone calls it selfish if it makes you feel good, I’d say that’s merely a misunderstanding of where the good feelings come from!

So be kind during this holiday season. You never know the difference even one seemingly small act of kindness might make for someone.

The opposite of stress

Everybody knows what stress feels like. We also know what it feels like when we’re kind, when someone is kind to us, or even when we witness kindness.

The feelings are opposite. Most of the effects inside the body are the opposite too.

Feelings of stress generate ‘stress hormones’ in the brain and body, like cortisol and adrenalin.

Feelings of kindness generate oxytocin and nitric oxide (I affectionately call them ‘molecules of kindness’). Stress creates tension in the nervous system, pushing it into ‘fight or flight’; Kindness relaxes the nervous system, guiding it into ‘rest and relax’.

Stress increases blood pressure, kindness reduces it.

Feelings of stress generate free radicals and inflammation in the arteries and immune system, which can eventually lead to cardiovascular disease. Feelings of kindness reduce free radicals in the arteries and immune system. Kindness is, in fact, ‘cardioprotective’ (protects the cardiovascular system).

Stress weakens the immune system, kindness boosts it.

Stress makes us unhappy; kindness makes us happy.

Stress is linked with depression; kindness is protective towards depression.

And just to top it off, while stress speeds up ageing, kindness slows ageing.

The Science

Here’s a little by way of a simple explanation for some of the above effects.

Stress is linked with cardiovascular disease. Small amounts of stress are OK and even relatively large amounts too, if not too frequent, but consistent stress is associated with poor health outcomes through having a negative impact on the heart, arteries, and immune system. Stress is ultimately associated with shortened lifespan.

On the other hand, the warm feelings we get through kindness generate oxytocin and nitric oxide. Nitric oxide softens the walls of our arteries and improves blood flow around the body. Together, oxytocin and nitric oxide reduce blood pressure.

Where stress increases free radicals (oxidative stress) and inflammation in the arteries and immune system, which is linked with hardening of the arteries, research on oxytocin using cells from the arteries and immune system found that it reduced free radicals and inflammation in the arteries and immune system, effectively acting as an efficient antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

Research also shows that in relationships where there is more kindness, love and affection, there is also much less hardening of the arteries. It’s almost as if when we harden towards others, so we harden in the inside, but when we soften towards others, so we soften on the inside too. I love the symmetry!

Stress increases activity of the sympathetic nervous system, placing the body on alert. Kindness and compassion, on the other hand, increase parasympathetic activity, allowing the body to relax and regenerate. Kindness and compassion increase vagal tone, which is a measure of parasympathetic activity.

Stress can have a long-term negative effect on the immune system. Kindness, on the other hand, explains the ‘Mother Theresa Effect’; this is from research that showed that the immune systems of volunteers were boosted when they watched a video of Mother Theresa of Calcutta performing acts of kindness.

Kindness also makes us happier and is an antidote to depression. Many pieces of research comparing people performing acts of kindness with people going about their normal business show that people doing kindnesses become happier. Other studies find that, statistically, people who do regular volunteer work are generally happier and suffer less depression than people who don’t.

What surprises many people is that kindness slows ageing. It’s pretty obvious, really, when you really think about it. It is common knowledge that stress speeds up ageing. We’re all familiar with the tales of people whose hair went white rapidly once they began a stressful job. Stress causes oxidative stress (what happens when free radicals wreak havoc) and inflammation, which accelerate ageing of the heart and arteries, immune system, joints, muscles, hair, skin, brain … pretty much the whole body.

Kindness slows ageing in a few ways. Indirectly, simply through sparing ourselves stress we spare ourselves some of these effects. But more directly, the products of kindness (oxytocin, nitric oxide, and increased vagal tone), actively slow internal processes of ageing, like oxidative stress in the skin, muscles, arteries, immune system. Some research, for example, has shown a substantial reduction in oxidative stress in muscles and skin when there’s plenty of oxytocin around.

And here’s the thing: you can’t get oxytocin from diet. You can’t eat it nor drink it. The only way to get it is to make it internally, and we make it through how we think, feel and behave. When our thinking, our feelings, and our behaviour towards others and towards animals is kind (yes!… kindness to animals boosts oxytocin) then it’s like we turn on an oxytocin tap inside our bodies, giving us much of these ‘side effects’.

You don’t need to do something huge for it to qualify as a kind act. Simple gestures count too. Even a kind thought about someone that results in a smile on your own face is you being kind.

You don’t even need to give it much thought at all.

Just be kind!

By David R Hamilton, PhD

Author of ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’

References: Research quoted above cited in ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’

The table below summarises the effects of stress vs kindness

How kindness can reduce wrinkles

mother showing kindness to daughterYes, you read correctly!

Have you ever cut an apple in half and left it on the table? If so, you’ll have noticed it quickly goes brown. This is oxidation, or oxidative stress, as scientists prefer to call it.

Oxidation occurs in skin too, and it can be a side-effect of lifestyle, diet, stress, even sunlight. It doesn’t happen as quickly in our skin as it does in a sliced apple left on a table, so don’t worry, but it happens nevertheless. It’s caused by what are known as free radicals.

Here’s a simple way to think of free radicals. Think of what Harry Potter’s spectacles look like: two ‘O’s and a little bridge between them. His spectacles are actually the exact shape of oxygen, the stuff we breathe. Oxygen – O2 – has two ‘O’ atoms and a bond (bridge) connecting them as in, O-O.

Now imagine Harry gets hit by one of Draco Malfoy’s spells and it snaps the bridge of his spectacles. So now he has two single lenses that are no longer bonded to one another. When this happens to oxygen, not due to one of Draco’s spells but to some kind of stress, the two ‘O’s are said to be free radicals.

Once bonded, they are now separate. Instead of being in a relationship, they are single. And they simply hate being single. They’ll do anything to be back in a relationship.

Unfortunately, such is the strength of a free radical’s desire to bond that it will happily covet its neighbour’s wife, so to speak: it will pinch any nearby atom. This isn’t so great for the body, especially if the atom pinched is part of the cells of our skin, or even the cells that line our arteries, or our immune system, or even a brain cell. Once the free radical has taken an atom, these cells can begin to fall apart.

The body has natural ways of dealing with free radicals, though. It uses anti-oxidants. An anti-oxidant is anti (against) oxidation. It is a willing partner for a free radical, thereby eliminating any further damage to cells.

We get anti-oxidants from many fruits and vegetables, salads, teas, olive oil, cinnamon, dark chocolate, and many other foods. It’s one of the reasons why doctors encourage us to eat those foods. We also have natural anti-oxidants in the body.

But when free radicals are produced more abundantly than the body is able to mop them up, that’s when we get oxidation / oxidative stress.

In the skin, it contributes to the formation of wrinkles.

So, what has kindness got to do with it?

It’s probably easier to think of it the other way around. You’ve probably noticed that stress speeds up ageing. This is partly because stress increases free radicals.

On the other hand, kindness generates the hormone, ‘oxytocin’ (see ‘Molecules of Kindness’), which reduces free radicals.

Scientists publishing in the journal, Experimental Dermatology, were studying two types of skin cells: keratinocytes, which make up 90 per cent of the outer layer of skin, and fibroblasts, which are the cells that make collagen.

They found that free radical levels are much lower in both the keratinocytes and the fibroblasts when there’s plenty of oxytocin present, and higher when there’s not much oxytocin present. In other words, oxytocin actively reduces free radicals.

Now, you cannot get oxytocin from your diet. You cannot eat it or drink it. The only way to get oxytocin into your skin is to produce it naturally. And the way to do that is through your behaviour!

Oxytocin production is a side effect of kindness (see ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness‘). Just as feeling stressed produces stress hormones, the feelings of warmth or connection that accompany acts of kindness generate oxytocin in the body.

This oxytocin reduces free radicals all throughout the body. Not only does it reduce free radicals in skin but studies show it reduces them in the arteries too, producing a ‘cardioprotective’ effect; that is, protecting the heart and arteries.

So, you want to reduce wrinkles? Be kind.

Someone once said to me, “That can’t be right because I am kind and I have wrinkles.”

Of course, being kind doesn’t mean you won’t age. But it does mean that being kind can slow the process down … just as stress speeds it up.

It simply comes down to the feelings that kindness and stress produce because these feelings generate substances in the body.

As I mentioned above, feeling stress generates stress hormones, and they contribute to the production of free radicals.

Feelings of warmth, connection, affection, gratitude – feelings that accompany kindness – generate oxytocin and oxytocin reduces free radicals.

In other words, stress speeds up ageing, kindness slows it down.

So, yes, as unlikely as it might sound on first reading, kindness really can reduce wrinkles.

 

Want to learn more?

There has been a great deal of recent research into the internal physiological products of being kind and compassionate. I have collated much of this research, including the different ways that kindness impacts cells, the immune system, nervous system, arteries, and brain in my book, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’. Available from all major booksellers. Here’s a few Amazon links. Amazon.co.uk  Amazon.com  Amazon.com.au  Amazon.ca  Audiobook

The 7 Day Kindness Challenge

 

I’d like to challenge you to complete a 7-Day Kindness Challenge.

Here’s some ground rules:

1) You must do something different every day. You can do the same thing on two different days if you want, but it only counts the first time.
2) You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone at least once. In other words, you have to do an act of kindness that stretches you a bit.
3) At least one of your acts of kindness must be completely anonymous. No one must know that it was you who did it, or what you did. You can’t tell anyone about it.

That’s the rules. Good luck!

And remember, you don’t have to do big things to make a difference. It’s the small things in large numbers that matter most because opportunities for these arise every day.

How Kindness Can Heal The Body

love as medicineIt’s been said that love or kindness can mend a broken heart. It’s true, and by this we generally mean emotionally. But there’s much more to it. Love and kindness also have a physical impact on the heart.

Let me explain. Everyone knows that stress creates stress hormones, like cortisol, adrenalin, and norepinephrine. But, to be clear, it’s not necessary for us to be facing a stressful event. Anticipating or recalling a stressful situation produces stress hormones. Similarly, how we feel in relation to a current stressful situation produces stress hormones. In other words, it’s not the situation itself, but how we feel in relation to it that generates stress hormones. Feelings are the key!

This is an important point. What about feelings of a different kind? What kind of hormones do they produce?

Well, love produces the love hormone, oxytocin. It’s been called by other names too! – the cuddle chemical or hugging hormone (because we produce it when we hug) and even the moral molecule or ‘trust me’ drug (because it promotes trust). I often refer to oxytocin as a ‘molecule of kindness’. The reason is that it is produced when we’re being genuinely kind.

Genuine kindness creates feelings of warmth and connection, as does love, and it is these feelings that produce oxytocin.

OK, so now we know that kindness produces oxytocin. How does that heal the body?

Well, oxytocin is a cardioprotective hormone. Cardioprotective means exactly what it says – protective towards the cardiovascular system. It provides this protection in a few ways.

First, it stimulates production of nitric oxide, which then dilates our arteries. The result is a reduction in blood pressure. This is a well-known strategy employed by cardiovascular drugs – to boost nitric oxide. It was one of the first strategies I learned when I worked in cardiovascular drug development, in fact. It is also the basis for how Viagra works. Outside it’s very well-known role, Viagra is also a cardiovascular drug.

Second, oxytocin acts as both an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory throughout the cardiovascular system. An antioxidant basically means it is anti (against) oxidation (or oxidative stress), more popularly known as ‘free radical’ damage. Free radicals harm the heart and arteries, which is why we’re encouraged to have antioxidants in our diets through eating vegetables, fruits, and things like cinnamon, dark chocolate, and even olive oil.

The anti-inflammatory part is vital too because inflammation plays a major role in cardiovascular disease. We generally focus so much on reducing cholesterol, but inflammation is just as much of an issue. In fact, an increase in cholesterol is often a side effect of inflammation.

So, given that oxytocin is such a potent cardioprotective hormone and that we produce it when we’re being genuinely kind, we can therefore say that kindness is cardioprotective – that kindness reduces blood pressure, acts as an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory.

Indeed, we’ve probably all felt that relaxing, calming sense that kindness brings, whether we’re the person being kind, the recipient of it, or even a witness to it, and even sometimes a warm feeling in the chest, which is caused by an oxytocin-stimulated increase in blood flow to the heart.

Furthermore, studies on the Buddhist, Loving-Kindness meditation, also known as metta bhavana, have shown potent anti-inflammatory effects. In research, people taught the meditation, where they cultivated feelings of kindness and compassion, were found to have a much lower inflammatory response to stress. Other research on the meditation showed increases in nitric oxide, undoubtedly due to increases in oxytocin.

So, kindness reduces blood pressure and causes antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. And there’s more. Oxytocin – our molecule of kindness also helps speed up wound healing. Under conditions when oxytocin levels are low, certain wounds can take longer to heal. Part of the reason for this is that oxytocin promotes angiogenesis – regrowth of blood vessels – which is vital to wound healing. When we get plenty of oxytocin in our bodies, wound healing is more at an optimum. Kindness really does heal!

Our molecule of kindness also plays a key role as an antioxidant in skin cells. Getting plenty of oxytocin into the skin slows the ageing of skin, in fact. We can’t eat or drink oxytocin; it’s not something we get from diet. We must produce it through how we feel, which is often a consequence of how we behave (i.e. kind or not). Therefore, there’s a strong case for the effect of being kind and how we age.

It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. We all know that stress can speed up ageing, and much of this is because stress increases free radicals and inflammation. In the skin, this accelerates ageing. And let me remind you that it’s the feelings of stress that are doing this. Swap stress for kindness, on the other hand, and the warm feelings of connection produce oxytocin, which is delivered to the skin, thus slowing the visible process of ageing.

Research now even shows that oxytocin plays a vital role in cardiomyogenesis – the growth of heart muscle cells. In fact, in the absence of enough oxytocin, cardiomyogenesis is significantly slowed. This effect is most pronounced in infants or young children who do not receive enough love. Their entire body, including the heart, grows at a slower rate (about 30% slower).

This lack of emotional warmth and loving contact significantly reduces levels of human growth hormone and oxytocin. In reference to research in this area, UNICEF wrote that, “For every three months that a young child resides in an institution, they lose one month of development.” Importantly, bringing a child into a warm emotional environment has positive effects on growth and development. Some research shows a massive catch up of growth when a child is fostered or adopted from an institution.

So, yes, love and kindness can mend a broken heart, but over and above the emotional healing, we have very positive physical effects too, on the heart and the whole body.

You may have noticed that I have referred to genuine kindness above as how we produce oxytocin. This is very important because, just like feelings of stress produce stress hormones, it is the feelings associated with kindness that produce oxytocin. The only way to get these warm feelings of connection is when the kindness is genuine. You must mean it, in other words.

Most of this research didn’t exist ten years ago, which is why it is not common knowledge, especially in professional circles and in mainstream health services. I believe it is time that we make it common knowledge then because it is hugely beneficial in our homes, for ourselves and our family members, in our workplaces, hospitals, and societies at large.

So, please feel free to share this article with friends, family, colleagues, and co-workers so that the information reaches the people it needs to reach. And in the process of going about your day today, be kind!

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.

References

All references cited above can be found in David R Hamilton, PhD., ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness

As one goes up – the other comes down

brain heart seesawKindness and stress are like two people on a seesaw. As one side goes up, the other comes down.

As we practice more kindness in our lives, stress tends to come down. Less kindness, on the other hand, often correlates with more stress.

That’s certainly what research is showing.

In a study led by Emily Ansell, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, the behaviour habits and stress levels of 77 people were recorded over a 14-day period.

The way it worked was that each person had to fill out an online assessment every day where they would record any acts of kindness that they did as well as any stressful life events.

Ansell found that kindness and stress were polar opposites. The more kindness the participants reported on any one day, the less stress they experienced.

Even if they reported a lot of stressful events on a day, if they also did lots of kindnesses on that day then their stress levels were comparatively low.

It wasn’t that being kind prevented stressful events from happening. No, not at all. It was that kindness buffered the effects of stressful events. It cancelled out much of the negative emotion of stressful events. Life happens, but kindness colours our experience of it.

The kindnesses each person did didn’t have to be big either. We sometimes get the idea that only big things qualify as kind acts. In fact, in the study, many people reported acts like holding open a door for someone, paying someone a compliment, or even helping someone with their homework.

In other blogs, I’ve described how oxytocin is a ‘molecule of kindness’ in that just as we have stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin, which are produced in response to feelings brought about by stress, so oxytocin is produced in response to feelings of connection that arise through acts of kindness.

Lots of stress can have a damaging effect on our arteries and that’s why stress is associated with high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, even heart attack and stroke. Oxytocin, on the other hand, is ‘cardioprotective’. It protects the heart and arteries. It lowers blood pressure and is protective towards heart attack and stroke.

So kindness goes beyond improving mental and emotional health by buffering stress. It can improve cardiovascular health too.

Nowadays there is a lot of focus on mindfulness meditation for helping people to reduce stress in their lives. I am an advocate of that and have indeed written lots on the beneficial effects of meditation. I meditate every day. But meditation isn’t the only way to reduce stress. Being kind reduces stress too and has additional direct cardiovascular benefits as well.

I’d like to see kindness increasing more in our societies, in our businesses, in the teachings in our schools, and even in the words and behaviours of our politicians and leaders. Kindness makes better societies. It creates a better world. And without doubt, it makes us healthier.

I’d like to see businesses actively encouraging their staff to be helpful to each other and to go that extra half mile for their customers. I’d like to see more business focused more on the contribution that they make to society than on their bottom line. I’d like to see politicians promote kindness in the policies they create, vote for and endorse, in the language they use and in the way that they speak to and treat each other.

I was warmed recently when I gave a talk at my niece’s school to a class of 8-year-olds. I spoke about kindness. The teacher then encouraged the entire class to be kind to each other. She even decided that the student who helped others the most over the next few days would get a copy of my book. OK, they might not totally understand the book as they’re only 8, but it was the gesture from the teacher that mattered most.

I learned that day that some of the teachers in the school regularly talk about kindness with the children and discus the importance of it in life.

Kindness doesn’t need to cost anything. A smile. A compliment. Sitting with someone in school who feels alone. A hug. Holding a door. Looking after the kids. A friendly word. An offer of help or support. A well-timed phone call …

All kindnesses matter!

References
References to all studies can be found in, ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness’, by David R Hamilton PhD (February, 2017). Amazon.co.uk  Amazon.com  Amazon.ca  Amazon.com.au

Pay It Forward

Heart Social NetworkI love the concept of Pay it Forward. I first heard about it from the film of that name, starring a young Haley Joel Osment. Based on the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, the story follows a young boy whose idea to pay acts of kindness forward set in motion an extraordinary chain of events that led to hundreds of people being on the receiving end of kind acts.

The basic premise of Pay It Forward is that we repay kindness forwards to other people rather than in return to the person who helped us. So instead of ‘pay it back’ we ‘pay it forward’. It sets in motion a ripple- or domino-effect. The forces that keep it going are elevation and gratitude.

Elevation has been defined by psychologist Jonathan Haidt (pronounced Height) as a state of feeling inspired, moved, or uplifted through receiving kindness or witnessing an act of kindness or moral beauty. It’s the warm feeling we get in the heart. Many studies show that once a person feels elevated they tend to be more helpful to others, especially if they’ve just received kindness themselves.

My friend, Lesley, recently asked me to sign a few copies of my new book, ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness’ with the line, “To whoever Lesley gives this book to.” She likes to gift books to people. The idea has now caught on.

I happened to mention it in a few recent talks and it inspired some people to ask for their book to be inscribed in the same way. Now, dozens of people have received a signed book with that message. The elevation people feel after hearing what Lesley did has created a domino effect.

At my book launch recently, after I’d talked about the Pay It Forward concept, a lady who purchased a book and asked me to sign it then paid for a book for the next person in the book-signing queue. You may have heard of this kind of thing in coffee shops where someone pays for the next person’s coffee, or at motorway tolls where a person pays for the toll of the person behind them, each setting in motion a little ripple of kindness.

And the ripple of kindness is exactly what happened at my book launch. The person who learned that their book had just been paid for, in turn, chose to pay for the book of the person behind her. As that person approached and learned they had received some kindness, she also paid it forward and bought a book for the next person in line. This went on for a total of 9 people before ending at an elderly gentleman who was really quite overcome with emotion at learning of the pay-it-forward chain that presented him with a free book. He was visibly moved.

The National Kidney Registry in the USA generates a lot a Pay It Forward goodwill. Following the struggle to find a kidney donor who was a match for their daughter, the registry was set up by Jan and Garet Hil to help spare other families the same stress, ultimately speeding up the time it takes for donor matches to be found. It has started numerous kidney donor-chains.

A kidney donor chain is where a family member or friend of someone who receives a kidney donates one of theirs to someone else. They wanted to donate a kidney to their loved one but they weren’t a match so they pledged to donate theirs in a ‘Pay It Forward’ fashion to someone who is a match. A loved one of the recipient of their kidney does the same, and so on.

One of the world’s longest Pay It Forward-style Kidney Donor Chains involved 34 consecutive kidney transplants involving 26 different hospitals. It began in December 2014 with Kathy Hart, an attorney from Minneapolis who heard her yoga instructor’s son needed a kidney, but not being a match she decided to sign up to the registry and donate one of her kidneys to someone else. It ended on 26th March 2015 with 77-year-old Mitzi Neyens of Wausau, Wisconsin. That’s 34 people’s lives saved by 34 consecutive incredible acts of kindness, done in a Pay It Forward fashion, all from a single act of kindness.

I really love that kindness sets domino effects in motion. It’s a heart-warming thought that so many people have so much goodwill in their hearts that they want to do kind things for others.

We hear so much negative news from TV and read about the same things online and in newspapers. I like to think that there’s much more kindness in the world than that. For every unkindness I see around me, I see a hundred time more kindness. I see a hundred times more smiles, good will gestures, supportive words, friendly acts, helpfulness.

I picked up a hire car a half hour or so ago because I’m driving to give a talk this evening. It’s heavy snow where I am right now in central Scotland. After asking where I was driving to, Craig, one of the managers at Arnold Clark Rentals in Stirling, went online and looked at live traffic cameras all over the region and worked out a route for me that would avoid the heaviest of the snow. He didn’t need to do that. He was simply being kind, and I am extremely grateful for it.

So take every opportunity to be kind that life presents to you. And it will. Kindness really does matter.

And who knows, maybe your kindnesses will topple a few dominos.