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.

Born to be kind

family treeMy religion is KindnessHH The Dalai Lama

You’ve probably heard of ‘The Selfish Gene’. Many have mistakenly taken this to mean than humans are naturally selfish.

That’s not what the term ‘selfish gene’ refers to. Selfish gene really refers to the process of evolution where genes are copied and passed onto the next generation.

Rather than being selfish, humans are actually born kind.

We have kindness genes. The most prominent of these is the gene for oxytocin, a little hormone associated with reproduction, breast feeding and social behaviour. It is also affectionately known as the love hormone, cuddle chemical, and even a molecule of kindness. The reasons for these more affectionate names is because oxytocin makes us love more, cuddle more, and it makes us kind. It is one of our oldest genes, at around 500 million years young.

What does this tell us? It tells us that the gene is highly important otherwise it will have phased out a long time ago. It causes mothers to love and care for their children, thus ensuring that they grow up and are able to reproduce themselves, thus carrying on the human species. It also causes us to help each other, to work together for a common good. The oxytocin gene truly is a kindness gene.

So rather than being selfish, kindness is genetically ‘wired’ in us. Our kind nature is deeply entrenched in us. It is ancient.

So what about selfishness and all of the unkind things we hear about and experience? These things don’t mean we’re not kind, only that life happens. How a person behaves is often a product of learning, or their circumstances or even their early background in life.

A person whose life is comfortable might find it easy to be kind to others partly because life is uncomplicated by stress. Someone else who is having a really difficult time might out of necessity be more focused on survival or just getting through the current phase of their life. At times they might make decisions based on their own immediate needs rather than those of someone else. Person 1 might be regarded as kind and person 2 more selfish. Yet given the same set of stress-less circumstances they will both most likely be kind.

The point is that deviations away from kind behaviour are not necessarily because of a selfish nature but because of circumstances. Although some people undoubtedly do have a more selfish nature.

It’s difficult to argue with that. But how much of this is their true nature and how much is a product of learning and experience? I don’t have the answer to that as each of us is unique. But undoubtedly there is a full spectrum of natural kindness.

Each gene comes in slightly different versions. If you imagine the oxytocin gene to be coloured pink then we’d find that it comes in many different shades of pink, from light pink all the way to a dark pink that is almost red. Some have the lighter shade, some the darker. If we think of the gene’s lightness of colour as generally associated with tendency to be kind, then we would find that some people are more naturally kind than others and therefore some people are more naturally selfish than others.

But the point is that we ALL have the oxytocin gene. There is no one alive who doesn’t have it. If a person didn’t have an oxytocin gene they wouldn’t be alive, which I suppose is quite an odd thing to say but I think you get my point. Oxytocin plays a crucial role not just in reproduction but throughout the cardiovascular system, the immune system, the digestive system, the process of making stem cells into muscle cells, heart cells, even skin cells. Without oxytocin, we quite simply would not be here. Now read this another way – without kindness, we quite simply would not be here.

The 1976 book, ‘The Selfish Gene’, written by Richard Dawkins wasn’t about humans being selfish. I think many have generally misunderstood its title. In some ways, the selfish gene has actually produced a kind species. Evolution has wired in us the tendency to be kind.

It is kindness, not conflict or exclusion, that is the answer to society’s problems. Where there is misunderstanding, we need empathy. Where there is hurt and suffering, we need compassion. Where the opportunities present themselves, we need to be kind. We are wired to solve our problems through empathy, understanding, dialogue, sharing, and finding common ground.

Kindness elevates the human spirit. Kindness opens the heart and mind and helps us see the same things in new ways. That’s it’s power.

If you’re ever in doubt about which way to turn, about what to do, about what choice to make, choose kindness. It is your nature, after all.

 

Further reading

You might like to read about the Born This Way Foundation, which is all about helping to create a kinder, more compassionate world. They have declared 2017 to be A Year of Kindness.

The Most Attractive Quality

David_Hamilton_Kindness_Meme_2aWe usually think of ‘attractive’ in the same sentence as physical appearance. But deep down, what we really find most attractive is kindness. Think about it.

A study of over 10,000 people found this. Quizzed about what they most wanted in a potential long-term mate, kindness was the No.1 choice. It came above good looks and good financial prospects in both males and females.

This might come as initially surprising to some people. That’s partly because we typically imagine what other people would pick – we assume that others would be considering our appearance. But when you really think about it yourself, most of us pick ‘a kind person’, ‘a kind heart’, or some other version of kindness.

Psychologist, John Gottman, is famous for being able to predict with over 90% success which couples will still be together years later, simply by studying how they interact with each other for a short time.

In some of his research, he identified what he called ‘bids’, like when one person invites their partner to “Come and see this!” Bids are basically bids for connection.

He then identified whether the partner would ‘turn towards’, where they would respond attentively to their partner’s ‘bid’ – an act of kindness – or ‘turn away’, where they basically showed little interest, perhaps by murmuring, ‘yes … nice’ then returning to the TV or looking at their phone, or even responding with contempt.

Examining 130 newlywed couples going about their day, he followed up on them 6 years later. He discovered that of those who ‘turned towards’ their partner, 87% of them were still together, but of those who typically ‘turned away’, only 33% of them were still together after this time.

Using these kinds of observations, you can appreciate why some psychologists can predict the likelihood of a relationship standing the test of time by simply watching couples interacting with one another for a short time. Kindness is a reliable indicator of relationship longevity.

Many other pieces of research show the same kind of overall phenomenon. Kindness is key in any kind of relationship, from our closest relationships, through friendships, with neighbours, and even with work colleagues.

It’s a no brainer, really. Do you prefer to hang out with people who show you kindness or contempt? It’s obvious … but I feel it’s important to remember this because it’s so easy to get caught up with the trials and tribulations of life, and even as the political landscape in the world shifts from time to time. Sometimes … we forget that kindness is so damn important.

It’s the fabric that holds society together. It holds relationships together.

Of course, love is the magic ingredient in an intimate relationship. But kindness is that love expressed in words and deed. Kindness is the thread of the fabric because there are so many little moments in any day where kindness can be shown, so many little stitches that can be made, some so small and seemingly insignificant, but so vitally important.

So I invite you to look out for bids and sew some stitches of kindness into the fabric of life where you can.

 

References

5 side effects jacket imageAll References can be found in ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness‘, David R Hamilton PhD.

Molecules of Kindness

5 side effects jacket imageNo act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Aesop

A molecule is a useful collection of atoms. I used to be an organic chemist so I made molecules every day. Even if you don’t know exactly what a molecule is, I’ll bet you’re familiar with many popular ones.

Serotonin is a molecule that’s associated with positive mood. Ascorbic acid is a molecule otherwise known as Vitamin C. There’s caffeine that you find in coffee, morphine that people receive for pain, threobromine in chocolate.  You may even have heard of lycopene that we get in tomatoes or allicin from garlic, which is responsible for its antibiotic effects. Sildenafil is a molecule more commonly known as Viagra.

We produce many molecules in the body through our behaviour. Stress, for example, produces cortisol. Cortisol can therefore be said to be a ‘molecule of stress’. Hunger produces grehlin, a molecule that readies the body for eating. Grehlin is known as the ‘hunger hormone’ (a hormone is another name for a particular type of molecule).

There are two ‘molecules of kindness’; that is, molecules that are produced in the body when we’re kind.

The first is oxytocin and the second is nitric oxide.

You may have heard of oxytocin. People call it the ‘love hormone’ or ‘cuddle chemical’ because it’s readily produced in the body when we feel love or when we hug a person or an animal. We produce oxytocin basically any time we’re being genuinely kind.

And I say genuinely for a reason. This is because genuine kindness creates a warm feeling inside and it’s the warm feeling that produces the oxytocin. If it’s not genuine, there’s no oxytocin. It’s like nature’s catch-22. So, what do oxytocin and nitric oxide do?

Studies of cells from our arteries show that oxytocin basically protects the cells from oxidation (or oxidative stress, as scientists prefer to call it) and inflammation. Oxidative stress and inflammation play a big role in heart disease. When there’s not a lot of oxytocin around, there’s typically more oxidative stress and inflammation, but once oxytocin arrives in our arteries the levels come way down. Basically, oxytocin protects the heart. It’s known as a ‘cardio-protective’ molecule. Since we produce it when we’re kind, kindness can also be said to be cardio-protective.

I remember, as a child, a saying among some of the older people in our street was that ‘if you live from the heart, it’s good for the heart’. They were pretty much on the money with that!

Once oxytocin is in our arteries, which happens when we’re being kind, it causes nitric oxide to be produced. Nitric oxide is a bit of a miracle molecule – that’s according to Dr Louis Ignarro, who received the Nobel Prize for his work on it. Nitric oxide helps regulate blood pressure by altering the texture of our arterial walls. If blood pressure is high, nitric oxide makes the arteries softer and this causes them to widen (dilate) and blood pressure comes down. If blood pressure is low, on the other hand, then nitric oxide toughens up the arteries to increase the pressure.

Nitric oxide also helps circulation and plays a very important role in maintaining blood flow all around the body, including the brain. It also helps maintain an optimum balance of HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol. It may be a miracle molecule but an even greater miracle is that we produce it by being kind.

Thus, kindness is very good for the heart because it produces oxytocin and nitric oxide, two molecules of kindness, and they both act on the heart and arteries to keep them healthy.

References

5 side effects jacket imageReferences and more information can be found in my new book, (The 5 Side Effects of Kindness), (Feb 2017). Amazon UK  Amazon.com  Amazon.ca  Amazon.com.au

Helper’s High

Give with heartThe term ‘Helper’s High’ was first coined by Allan Luks, in his book, ‘The Healing Power of Doing Good’. You’re probably familiar with the high. It’s that good feeling we get when we do something kind for someone or an animal.

There are loads of ways we can help each other. Giving time to someone face-to-face brings on Helper’s High. A recent study commissioned by the charity ‘Guide Dogs’ found that when we give our time in helping someone the improved feeling can last up to 24 days. It’s even more pronounced in the 18-24 age group, where effects were reported to last 34 days.

Donating money also makes us feel good. The study found that donating money can make us feel positive for round about a week.

The good feelings come because we’re wired to feel good when we’re kind, which I’ll explain below. That’s why Helper’s High is pretty universal. The Guide Dogs study was of over 2,000 people and found that 95% of those who gave their time to a good cause felt happier. This is what Allan Luks’ study found too. Questioning over 3,000 people on their charitable ways, he also found that 95% reported feeling good when they help others.

I personally think it’s important that kids and teens realise the importance of kindness and how it makes a difference. They’re the future.

In a powerful but mostly forgotten study back in the early 1970s, rather than be punished, teenagers with behavioural difficulties were asked to tutor younger children instead. The results were later published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. By helping younger kids, the ‘teen tutors’ made significant improvements themselves in maths, reading, and sentence completion tasks. Most of them also showed positive changes in their attitude towards themselves, others, education and the future. Quite a result, I’d say.

There are hundreds of studies that show how kindness makes us happier and is healthier for our hearts and immune systems. I don’t intend to list them all here. That would make this a veerrryyyy long blog. If you do want to access them, I collated a large number of them in my book ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ and reference over 250.

In the meantime, let me explain why kindness makes us happier. In short, it’s because we’re genetically wired that way. Helping each other is a behaviour that glues communities together. Thus, through evolutionary timespans, nature has ‘selected’ genes that a) make helping each other a quite natural behaviour and b) ensure that helping each other makes us feel good, so we’ll keep doing it, thus further gluing our communities together.

I would also say that deep in the human psyche, and this is a spiritual thing for many, is the sense that helping each other is basically the right thing to do. We have an intuitive sense of the rightness of helping.

What I really want to get across in this blog is that helping each other is a mark of who we are. It’s in our nature. It doesn’t mean that you have to spend every waking moment helping, else you feel guilty, nor that you respond to every call for help. We have lives to lead, families to support, jobs to do. But if we can just be a little alert to the needs of those around us, that’s a good thing.

I’d also like to address an issue some have with kindness, that it’s really selfish to be kind because we benefit from it. My view is that we help because it’s our nature to be kind. We don’t help to make ourselves feel good. Evolution has simply built a little emotional reward into our biology.

I’m saying this because I’ve read endless debates on whether there is really such a thing as altruism, given that we gain from an act of kindness. It’s the question I’m most often asked when I give a media interview on the science of kindness. My answer is always the same. “I prefer to leave the arguments to academia. In meantime I’m going to be kind.”

And in case you wondered, helping animals produces the same positive effects as does helping humans. Around a month after our dog, Oscar, passed away last year, we went to a rescue center and took some dogs for a walk. In these places dogs don’t always get the exercise they need and the staff are always looking for volunteers to help out. I remember feeling really good that we were able to provide some happiness for the dogs we walked.

And to come back to the selfish issue, we walked the dogs because we loved Oscar and we knew how much he loved to walk. We took the dogs out because we knew it would bring them some pleasure. It just so happens it gave us a sense of inner warmth as well.

I love that there’s such a thing as Helper’s High, that kindness benefits our health (mental and emotional health, heart, immune system, nervous system). It’s like a little reward we get. We don’t help for the reward, but it’s kind of nice when it comes anyway.

So I’ll leave you with my guiding principle in life, which you might be familiar with from some of my other blogs: Whatever you do, do it with kindness.

6 fascinating facts about the love hormone… and what that means for you

friends

I’ve written quite a lot about oxytocin, which also goes by the name of ‘love hormone’, ‘cuddle chemical’, ‘molecule of kindness’, or any other affectionate term that implies something about bonding and connecting.

If you ever wondered about those names, it’s because we produce oxytocin when we’re feeling love or connection (with a human, animal, tree, spiritual diety) and also when we hug.

So here’s a little summary of some of the healthy things that happen in our bodies when we produce oxytocin.

1) It makes people seem more attractive

One study gave people a dose of oxytocin and then showed them photographs of men and women, asking them to rate their attractiveness. A different group were given saline instead of oxytocin, as a control. The oxytocin group gave the men and women higher attractiveness ratings than did those who got the saline.

2) It makes us more generous

A study in the field of ‘neuroeconomics’ – where scientists study the brain while people make economic decisions – found that when people were given a squirt of oxytocin before they made an economic decision, where they had to decide on how they were going to share a sum of money, they were around 80% more generous than others who received a saline placebo.

3) It makes us more trusting

In an economics game known as the ‘Trust Game’, participants given a squirt of oxytocin were found to be significantly more trusting than those given saline. Of those in the saline group, 21% showed the maximal trust level, yet 45% of those who received oxytocin showed the maximal trust level.

4) It improves digestion

A little-known fact is that oxytocin and oxytocin receptors are found all throughout the GI tract. It plays an important role in the digestion of food (gastric motility and gastric emptyping). Research shows that in the absence of adequate levels of oxytocin, the whole digestive process slows down (known as gastric dysmotility).

In fact, some children with recurring tummy trouble or inflammatory bowel disease have been found to have low levels of oxytocin in their bloodstream. Oxytocin has as even been linked with IBS.

You may have heard of the old wisdom that you shouldn’t eat if you’ve just had a fight with a loved one. This is why. When we have a conflict, we reduce our levels of oxytocin, thereby making digestion a little more problematic.

Maybe if you want to improve your digestion, why not enjoy a meal with family or friends, or at least give someone a heartfelt hug before you start eating and again immediately afterwards.

5) It speeds up wound healing

Oxytocin also helps wound healing. It plays a key role in ‘angiogenesis’, which is the growth of blood vessels or re-growth of them after an injury.

Research shows that wounds take longer to heal when people are under stress or amid an emotional conflict, which is associated with lower oxytocin levels. In one study of couples, physical wounds of those who showed the most conflict behaviour healed 40% slower than wounds in those who weren’t in conflict. Other studies show that skin wounds heal even faster when we enjoy positive social interaction, which are times when we produce more oxytocin.

6) It’s good for the heart

It’s also very good for the heart. Oxytocin is a cardioprotective hormone, in that it protects the cardiovascular system. Oxytocin dilates the blood vessels, thereby lowering blood pressure, and also helps sweep free radicals and inflammation out of the arteries. FYI, free radicals and inflammation can cause cardiovascular disease.

How to produce oxytocin

We produce oxytocin every day. It flows when you show empathy or compassion, when you are kind or genuinely pleasant, when you show affection, when you hug. Love is not the only thing we make in the intimate act. We also make oxytocin.

I find it amazing that this simple hormone, that we generate through really any heart-centred display of gentleness or affection, produces all of the above effects.

Animals, and especially dogs, help us produce it too. Research shows that when we play with dogs, oxytocin levels shoot up in both the human and the dog.

This is probably why studies show that having a pet hugely benefits the heart. In one study, in patients who had spent time in a cardiac unit, after discharge, the chances of survival in those who had a pet was 400% higher. In fact, among many ways to improve heart health, Dr Mimi Guarneri, founder of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine and author of the book, ‘The Heart Speaks’, recommends having a dog.

Those of you who have been following some of my blogs will know that my beloved dog, Oscar, passed away at 2 years of age just 5 months ago. I enjoyed a very strong bond with Oscar. Before he arrived in my life, I never would have thought we could actually fall in love with animals, but Oscar’s presence in my life changed that.

I love the fact that dogs, and in fact all animals that we bond with, help us produce oxytocin and we, in turn, help them produce it. There’s something beautiful in this, in how we need each other, and in that the bond we create actually moulds our biology. It reminds me of why we need to see all humans and all animals as our family. It also adds a wee bit of fuel to my guiding principle in life: whatever you do, do it with kindness.

 

Footnotes:

The links above are references for the source scientific papers or articles or books where a study was cited. All references and full explanations, as well as references to many more studies, can be found in my book, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’, which shares hundreds of pieces of research showing how kindness, empathy, compassion, and love are healthy for us, as well sharing some inspirational short stories of kindness.

The 3-Degree Ripple Rule

image from istockphoto
image from istockphoto

You probably know that when you do a kind act, the impact goes farther than the person whom you have helped. But I suspect you hadn’t considered that each simple act of kindness you do might actually be affecting around 16 people.

So how do I come up with that number? Well, it’s based research into kindness contagion, aka – the ripple effect of kindness.

Research suggests that an act of kindness spreads out through 3 social steps.

That means that when you help a person, that person then helps other people, and these people, in turn help other people. I call it the ‘3-Degree Ripple Rule’. It’s Pay it Forward in real life.

So let’s do a wee bit of maths. Say you help a person out who’s struggling in some way. You raise that person’s spirits. Chances are that person will help a few other people out, even if it’s a simple thing like a few words of encouragement, holding a door open, letting a person in front in a queue or even letting a person in front in traffic. Often, they will do more. Let’s say that person, through the sheer number of interactions they have throughout the day, shows kindness to 4 people as a consequence of feeling lifted by your kindness to them. That’s a bit of a conservative estimate, but we’ll go for 4 to make it easy. That’s 4 people and we’re at 2-degrees.

So to continue with the same rate of kindness, each of these people are kind to 4 others. That’s 4 times 4 equals 16 and we’re at 3-degrees. Chances are many acts of kindness go farther.

And suppose you did 4 kind acts one day. You’d have impacted 64 people!

This, to be honest, is a very conservative estimate. Social networks are quite complex and many people have a lot of interactions throughout any given day, from family members to people at work, people in shops, and even with random strangers. And it’s unlikely that acts of kindness stop at 3-degrees. That’s just what some research shows where it averages over a number of people. In practice, a single act often ripples farther.

In fact, there’s evidence of ‘kidney donor chains’ that stretch the length and breadth of a country, altering the lives of several families. It’s where a Good Samaritan walks into a hospital and makes a donation of a kidney to whomever needs it.

With donor chains, a potential recipient will register along with a family member who wanted to donate one of their kidneys but wasn’t a match; for instance a man might need a kidney and his wife wants to donate one of hers. If she’s not a match for her husband she pledges to donate one of her kidneys to someone else as soon as one is found for her husband, in a ‘pay-it-forward fashion. Once a recipient is found for hers, that person’s partner or other loved one then donates one of theirs, and so on.

The longest kidney donor chain so far recorded involved 30 donors and stretched throughout 17 hospitals in the United States.

It began with a Good Samaritan who donated a kidney at Riverside Community Hospital, in Riverside, California, zig-zagging across the country and eventually finishing in Loyola, in Illinois, forever altering the lives of 30 families.

So don’t ever underestimate the effects you have each day. I’m not suggesting you go out and donate a kidney, although if you feel drawn to you will be saving lives, but each of us makes a difference even with the small acts of kindness we do.

Imagine how many people you could be positively affecting every day. I think it’s quite empowering to know that we can make a difference in more people’s lives than we think. Random acts of kindness every day can set a lot of balls of kindness rolling.

You are affecting the world in many more ways than you think. Most kindness is inexpensive but the net gain to the world is breathtaking.

It’s the simplest of my philosophies for life: Be kind!