The most contagious thing is kindness

We’re all thinking of contagion right now due to the coronavirus. Let’s not forget that kindness is also highly contagious.

Scientists at Harvard and Yale measured the contagiousness of kindness out to three social steps. That is, when you be kind to someone, that person will be kind or kinder to someone else (1 social step from you), because of how you made the person feel, and the recipient of that kindness will be kind or kinder to someone else (2 social steps from you), and the recipient of that kindness will be kind or kinder to someone else (3 social steps from you).

In practice, kindness is ‘circularly contagious’, like the way a wave travels outwards in a circle when you drop a pebble in water.

What actually happens is that the person you are kind to ends up being kind or kinder to about 5 people (the number varies but this is an average) over the course of the next 24 hours (1 social step), and each of those 5 people are kind or kinder to 5 people over the next 24 hours (2 social steps), and each of those 5 are kind or kinder to 5 people (3 social steps).

That’s 5 x 5 x 5 = 125 people benefitting from a single act of kindness. Each time you are kind, you really are impacting far more people than just the person you help! I’m saying this because many of us wonder if our actions are insignificant. They’re are! Kindness matters greatly and you make a difference even with the smallest of acts.

In these strangest of times, we’re being encouraged to keep our physical distance, but let’s reduce our emotional distance. Pick up the phone, send a text, use Facetime, WhatsApp or Skype. Be there for family, friends, co-workers, neighbours, others in your community, if you can.

One thing I’ve learned over the years of trying to be a little kinder is that what might seem like a small act for you might mean the world to the person you help.

Other things are contagious too. Emotions are contagious. You can actually infect someone with a good mood (or even happiness) down a phone line. One of my friends phoned me a few days ago just to tell me a joke. I was chuckling to myself for hours afterwards. But even just being upbeat on the phone can activate the mirror neuron system (MNS) of the person’s brain. If you’re using the phone then it’s the auditory component of the MNS or if you’re using video, then it’s both the auditory and visual components. Either way, your upbeat tone specifically activates their brain regions for positive emotion and improves their mood. In a very real and scientific way, your mood is contagious! It’s known as mood contagion or emotional contagion.

Healthy lifestyle is also contagious and it works through what’s called social contagion, where we are inspired to take up certain behaviours of others. In these times, one of the best ways to support your immune system is to eat a healthy diet containing fruit, vegetables, fibre, nuts and seeds. Try to incorporate over 30 different plant ingredients a week (try counting them) to optimally support your gut microbiome, which supports your immune system. This is according to Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at Kings College in London, and author of, ‘The Diet Myth’. If you have a handful of nuts, for example, containing peanuts, cashews, Brazil nuts and hazelnuts, then that counts as 4. If you dip bread in olive oil then that’s two (the bread grain plus the olive oil, coming from olives).

So if you eat well, you can not only help support your immune system but also that of some of your family and friends who might follow suit due to social contagion, especially if you communicate how healthy it is, and even do so in an upbeat way. Ultimately, if you do this partly to help them, then you’re also practicing kindness.

So while we increase our physical distance to help reduce the likelihood of contagion of coronavirus, let us increase the contagion of kindness instead.

 

 

As you give, so you receive

I have written a lot about side effects of kindness, that when you give you also receive. Sometimes receiving can be in the form of acts of kindness done for you, or of seemingly random blessings showing up in your life, but they also come in the form of physiological effects. I had an experience in Peru several years ago that first pointed me towards considering the physical effects of kindess.

I was having a tidy up recently and found my diary from a trip I made to Peru in 2001 with group of 17 people, led by my friend Stephen Mulhearn, a shamanic teacher. We did a series of spiritual and other meditative practices in sacred sites and in the jungle.

We did a 4-day trek to Machu Picchu, walking through jungle and up through mountainous scenery. It was a beautiful experience.

Several porters were assigned to carry our rucksacks. I remember feeling so sorry for them as each porter had 3 or 4 full rucksacks on their back, and some also had heavy gas canisters strapped to them for cooking our meals.

I felt terrible and insisted on carrying my own, however, the tour guide made it very clear to me that this is the only work some of the men could get and if we carry our own bags then the tour operator will simply hire fewer porters, depriving some of work. I understood his point, but it didn’t make it easier.

I remember one man, who was slight of build with an enormous burden of rucksacks and canisters. I wondered how he could even lift it off the ground. As we walked up steep parts of hills on narrow paths, I could see his legs literally trembling with all the weight.

It was very hot and we were all told to drink copious amounts of water. I realised that the porters had little or no water.

So every time I passed a porter or one passed me, I stopped and offered some of my own water (and food) I did this dozens of times over the following 20 km hike, giving all of my water away, not taking a single drop myself to ensure that I had enough to offer the porters.

When we reached our destination at over 4,000 metres altitude, I’d not taken a drop of water or food all day as I had given it all away. Yet, I felt exhilarated! I didn’t feel dry nor tired. I felt great. Energised, in fact.

It taught me on a practical level that you receive when you give, and that the receiving often comes in a form that you require. Of course, the body requires hydration, but I believe that I received energy that day in other ways, including emotional, that more than served my immediate needs.

Just as feeling stressed produces stress hormones, giving produces ‘kindness hormones’. Yes, there are such things, which I wrote a lot about in my books, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’, ‘The Little Book of Kindness’, and ‘Why Kindness if Good for You’. Kindness hormones are substances produced in the body due to how kindness makes you feel, just as stress hormones are substances produced due to how stress makes you feel.

When we give, it is the feeling of warmth, connection, even love or affection, that generate the kindness hormones. Research even shows that oxytocin (a kindness hormone) helps protect muscles from damage, which may even contribute to the effect of kindness increasing endurance. At the same time, the emotional high (known as ‘Helper’s High’) can produce a psychological state of exhilaration.

Combined, this is why giving to others can make us feel good even when conditions might normally see us feel bad, why we can be energised when circumstances would normally leave us feeling tired, or why we can feel resilience even in the face of testing events.

Indeed, scientists examining the relationship between kindness and stress found that when a person is doing more kindnesses, they tend to experience less stress. It doesn’t mean that stressful events don’t happen during these times, but that kindness seems to take the edge off them; in effect, kindness helps build resilience.

So it is certainly true that that giving leads to receiving in one way or another. However, it’s best we don’t look for what we might receive. Expecting to receive on account of what you are giving can take away the genuine feeling of warmth and connection that kindness produces, thus removing the potential for healthy effects. I call this ‘Nature’s Catch 22’. You only receive when your motivation for giving is genuine.

This is because it is genuine kindness that creates the feelings of warmth, connection, or affection and it is these feelings that produce any physiological or even psychological effects. In a sense, you have to mean it to feel it, so you have to mean it to get the rewards. Which also means you need to not be looking for the rewards. This is why I call it Nature’s Catch 22.

Had I been giving water to the porters as a strategy for boosting my own energy, I would likely have felt dehydrated and drained.

Of course, not all acts of kindness need be genuine. Helping another out of a sense of duty is still helping the person, even if you resent doing it. The downside for yourself is that if you resent it then you might feel stressed, which might not do you good in the long-term. There are times, therefore, when the best act of kindness, at least in terms of preserving your own health, is to say no.

Kindness is sometimes easy. Sometimes it’s not. There is no ‘one size fits all’. We each have our own lives, circumstances, relationships, environments and contexts. Sometimes things are complicated, sometimes they are simple. Kindness for one person might look very different to kindness for another.

All I can say is that if we each do the best we can, then I think we can make life a little easier for ourselves, for others, for our societies, and even for our world.

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Kindness is more than the things that we do

I was asked what kindness is during an interview a few weeks ago. It’s something I’m rarely asked as most of us assume we know what kindness is.

So I’ve turned it around and since asked a few groups what they think kindness is. The answer I receive the most is about doing helpful things for people, like acts of kindness.

That is absolutely a huge part of what kindness is, but I think we should also remember that there is much more to kindness than this. Kindness is also in how we think about people, whether we judge people in our minds, or the conversations we have with people in our minds that might not be so kind sometimes.

Of course, we need to vent and process issues. It’s not helpful to just pretend that everything is great. Doing so can just bury emotions.

However, I’ve found that if we have a willingness, just a willingness, to allow kindness to colour part of our thinking, it actually helps us to find softer, kinder, even more peaceful thoughts. It widens our perspective, and in so doing it allows us to see issues, and what might have been annoying us, from a wider, deeper, or clearer perspective. It helps us to heal, at times.

A good way to do this is to say, “Is it possible for me to find a kinder thought here? If so, what might it be?”

It doesn’t always work, and we’re all in different places in our lives, with different circumstances and different issues, but it can help … and more often than you might think.

As I said, it’s not about thinking kind for the sake of it. It’s simply about allowing kindness to be part of how we heal, allowing kindness to be like a fine rain that washes away dirt, to reveal what is underneath.

And what I’ve found to lie underneath is a sense of warmth and connection. Many people have asked me about the ‘best’ spiritual practice and often it is because people are seeking peace, freedom from their suffering, or enlightenment in some form.

Honestly, to think kindly is what I would say. It helps you find that warm, connected, non judgmental and expansive space. From here, peace is much easier to find.❤️🦋😊

Loving kindness slows ageing at the genetic level

I’ve written a lot about the links between kindness and ageing, and part of my focus has been that kindness is the opposite of stress, at least in terms of how it makes us feel and the physiological consequences of those feelings.

Just as feelings of stress produce stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenalin), so feelings associated with kindness produce kindness hormones (like oxytocin, aka, the love drug, the cuddle chemical).

As a result, while stress increases blood pressure, kindness reduces blood pressure. This is fairly obvious, and I’ve written about it in blogs as well as in two of my books, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’ and ‘The Little Book of Kindness’.

But exciting new research has taken things further. In a 12-week randomised controlled trial led by scientists at the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers measured the length of ‘telomeres’ before and after 6 weeks of daily meditation practice.

Telomeres are considered to be markers of ageing because they gradually reduce in length throughout our lives. Their length, and the rate at which their length reduces, not only gives a highly accurate indication of someone’s age but also how fast they are ageing.

They are end caps on DNA. A bit like the plastic ends on shoelaces that stop the shoelaces unravelling and thus ensure that you can thread the laces through the lace loopholes, telomeres help prevent DNA from totally unravelling. In so doing, they prolong the life of cells.

For the study, scientists compared the length of telomeres in people who practiced either, a) the ‘Loving Kindness Meditation’ (a Buddhist practice), where we think and feel kindness and compassion for ourselves and others, b) mindfulness meditation, or c) who did no meditation at all, to serve as a comparison. Blood samples were taken two weeks before and three weeks after the meditation practice.

Incredibly, while telomere length reduced in the mindfulness meditation group and in the control group (typical of 6 weeks of ageing), it did not reduce in the Loving Kindness group. The researchers wrote that, “… with participants in the LKM [Loving Kindness Meditation] group, on average, showing no significant telomere shortening over time.”

In other words, feelings of kindness and compassion seem to slow ageing at the genetic level. This offers further evidence that kindness brings about effects that are physiologically opposite to stress, because stress is one of the ways that telomere loss speeds up.

It is also worth noting that mindfulness meditation did also reduce the rate of loss of telomere length in comparison with the control group over the 6-week period, but only a little. We might expect this because mindfulness meditation is known to reduce stress, but the effect was not nearly so strong as it was for the loving kindness meditation. It is likely that longer term practice of mindfulness slows the rate of ageing, which is consistent with other research.

However, the effects of feelings of warmth, kindness and social connection, which we are encouraged to feel in practice of the loving kindness meditation (also known as metta bhavana), seem to produce much more powerful effects on ageing.

Exactly how it works is not fully understood, but it may involve oxytocin (the kindness hormone) and also the vagus nerve, which has been shown in research to increase in activity (vagal tone) due to practice of the loving kindness meditation.

Oxytocin has been shown to reduce stress and inflammation in immune cells, and thus prolong their health, and the vagus nerve controls the rest, relax and regenerate mode in the body, as well as the inflammatory reflex. Through the latter, increases in vagal tone have been shown to reduce inflammation. This has been cited as an explanation for the increased comparative health of stage 4 cancer patients with high vagal tone compared to those with low vagal tone (see article).

But regardless of how it works, the fact is that it does work. Kindness and compassion really do have powerful biological effects, and they might just have a significant effect on how long you live and how healthy you are.


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If you ever feel like you don’t make a difference

Kindness is highly contagious. It’s more contagious, in fact, than the cold.

The contagiousness of kindness is powered by what’s known as ‘elevation’, a description coined by social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt. It’s a sense of warmth, satisfaction, expansion, even gratitude. It’s the feeling we feel when we do something kind, but also when we receive kindness or even witness it.

Research by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, using a business game as a model, showed that kindness is contagious to at least 3 degrees of separation.

This means that when you do something kind for someone, they will likely be kind (or kinder) to someone else (1 degree), and the recipient of that kindness at 1 degree will be kind or kinder to someone else (2 degrees), and the recipient at 2 degrees will be kind or kinder to someone else (3 degrees).

In real life, it’s much more interesting. When you are kind to someone, given the average degree of interaction we have in a typical day, that person is likely to be kind (or kinder) to around 5 people over the rest of the day, on account of how you made she or he feel. That’s 5 people at 1 degree of separation from you. Think about it. When someone last showed you kindness, didn’t you find yourself being a little kinder to others afterwards, whether in your attitude, words, or actions?

But each of those 5 people will likely be kind (or kinder) to 5 further people, which means 25 people impacted at 2 degrees of separation from you. Now, each of those 25 are also likely to be kind or kinder to 5 further people each, so that’s 125 people at 3 degrees of separation from you. Of course, the numbers aren’t exact; sometimes a person will be kind to more than 5, sometimes less, sometimes it’s more than 5 in a single act. I’ve estimated that it just averages out at about 5 per person. This is illustrated in the image above.

In case you ever wondered how much of an impact you have, let me suggest that you’re changing the world every day. Every day!

Your acts of kindness sends out ripples that impact people at 2 and 3 degrees away from you, people you won’t even meet in your life, yet whose days are a little lighter simply because of something you might have said or did for another person. You are far more important in this world than you think you are.

Nature’s Catch 22

Image from Wordswag

I’ve written a lot about the “side effects” of kindness. There’s five of them: Kindness makes you happier, it’s good for the heart, it slows ageing, it improves relationships, and it’s contagious.

There’s talk sometimes where people say there is no truly altruistic act, that if you benefit from kindness then you’re being somewhat selfish and you’re therefore not doing it for the right reasons. It’s almost as if for a kindness to be pure, we have to suffer by doing it.

To be honest, I try not to get too weighed down with the academic debates about altruism. My opinion is that nature has built into us, that is, we have evolved, a system that encourages us to be kind for the right reasons, because being kind is the right thing to do.

I call it Nature’s Catch 22.

Here’s what I mean. The health-related side effects of kindness only occur because of how being kind makes you feel. That’s the key. It’s the warm feelings that come with kindness that release the kindness hormone, aka, the cuddle chemical, the hugging hormone, the love drug, or formally, oxytocin, a 9 amino acid-long hormone. It impacts not only brain circuits that make us feel connected, trusting, and happier, but it also acts on blood vessels to lower blood pressure and serves as a potent anti-oxidant too.

Therefore, you can only benefit from an act of kindness if you mean what you do. Why? Because you have to mean it to feel it! I’ll say that again. You have to mean it to feel it. And only by feeling it do you release oxytocin. To generate the kindness hormone and receive its benefits, your act of kindness must be real, honest, heartfelt.

It’s the feelings that generate the positive effects. Just as feelings of stress create negative effects in the body (and produce stress hormones), so feelings associated with kindness thus create positive effects.

So, a person trying to make themselves happier or improve their cardiovascular health by doing some half-hearted acts of kindness is futile. Of course, on one hand it still benefits the other person so that’s a good thing regardless, but there is no benefit to themselves because they didn’t mean what they were doing.

Perhaps I have side-stepped some of the altruism debate, but I believe that most of us are genuinely moved by the pain or suffering of others, and this makes our acts of kindness genuine.

I believe we have evolved to feel compassion, we have evolved to care, and as a result, we have evolved to be kind.

Nature’s Catch 22 has ensured it.

Our ancient ancestors who were kind for the right reasons derived more health benefits and were therefore more likely to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation.

So, we have evolved to mean it when we’re kind and to feel how it feels when we’re kind. And as a result, we receive the side effects of our kindnesses.


My new book, ‘The Little Book of Kindness’ (Gaia, Feb 2019) is due to be published on 7th Feb. I’m offering a FREE 4-lesson online course (on The Biology and Contagiousness of Kindness) to everyone who pre-orders the book before 7th Feb (pre-order quantities are used by booksellers to make decisions whether to stock a book or not). You can check out the free course HERE.

And you can pre-order the book from:

Amazon UK (Flexibound) Amazon UK (Kindle)
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Amazon.com.au (Flexibound) Amazon.com.au (Kindle)
Barnes and Noble (Flexibound) Barnes and Noble (Nook)
Waterstones

Kindness on the curriculum

I spent some time in New York City last weekend. I’m writing a series of pieces for Psychologies Magazine called ‘The Kindness Conversation’ where I basically have, well, conversations about kindness. In New York, I had my kindness conversation with Cynthia Germanotta, mother of Lady Gaga.

Cynthia is president and co-founder (with her daughter) of Born This Way Foundation, a charity whose mission it is to create a kinder and braver world. They focus much of their efforts on inspiring kindness in young people.

After our conversation (which will be in Psychologies Mag in a few months’ time), we headed out to Baldwin High School, a school on Long Island, to participate in a kindness project that the kids there have been involved with. These kids had bought over 400 Christmas presents for children whose families are homeless.

When we arrived at the school, all of the presents had been gathered together in a large hallway in the school before the kids took armfuls each and carried them out to a school bus. They literally packed the bus full of presents. Once filled, the bus was then driven to Bethany House, which provides emergency and transitional housing for homeless families in Long Island.

As part of their ‘Multiply Your Good’ campaign, Born This Way Foundation matched the number of presents with gifts of clothing for the children from one of their partners, thus doubling the volume of donations and so that the children of Bethany House would receive toys and clothing at Christmas.

As I write this, I am in awe of the kindness I witnessed at the school. It touched me deeply. Similar to my last experience in a school (see My Day Talking Kindness to Young Children), I found myself blown away by what I witnessed. People have often remarked that I am a kind person because I write and speak about kindness. In some ways, I am trying to use my skills to spread kindness, which is why I write and teach. But I cannot help but feel that there is a difference from writing and speaking about it and actually being on the front line doing it, like these kids were. It was a real humbling experience.

The teachers at the school deserve a special applause too for having the vision and desire to involve the school kinds in such a rewarding programme where, at their young age, they could have first-hand experience of kindness, what it means, and how it makes a difference. I think it’s a great idea to involve kids in kindness projects like this, so that they can learn about kindness through experience at a young age and also, through further school work, can explore the consequences of kindness, the impact it can have on people’s lives.

Surely, learning about kindness while at school is as important as learning to read and write, as important as maths, science, music, art and languages. Kindness is fundamental to our interactions with each other. It’s a way of being, a way that colours the nature of these interactions. It is fundamental at all levels of society. It is fundamental in building and maintaining healthy communities.

Kindness is getting more column space in newspapers and magazines now than at any other time I can remember. Perhaps it’s an antidote to some of the aggression and division we see so much of in the world at the moment, especially on the political scene. Perhaps we subconsciously seek to counterbalance division with kindness, because kindness unifies.

Kindness brings people together. It dissolves disagreement and hatred. Or as philosopher, Albert Schweitzer, wrote, “Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the Sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding and hostility to evaporate.

Kindness is like glue that holds us all together. What would we be without kindness? Where would we be if we all sought to look out only for ourselves? Kindness includes others.

I think kids should be learning what kindness is in school; how it matters, why it matters, its consequences. Kindness should be on the curriculum of all schools.

I was bullied at school when I was 16-17 years old. I often wonder if things would have been the way they were for me if kindness had been on our school curriculum. Would I still have been bullied? Perhaps! Perhaps not! But I do believe that, in general, a curriculum that included studies on kindness, with opportunities for further study in later school years, would result in a noticeable drop in bullying and a significant increase in tolerance and unity and perhaps even academic performance.

Kids could be learning why kindness matters, how it impacts our health, how it spreads by inspiring ‘pay it forward’ behaviour in others. They could be learning how to actually be kind, the multiple forms it can take, from saying thank you, to paying a compliment, to listening, to being there for a friend or family member, to volunteer work, to helping people in the community, to refraining from bullying.

They could learn about the science of kindness and how it impacts our health, from how it makes us happier, can reduce risk of depression and anxiety, how it helps build resilience by counteracting stress, to how it impacts the heart and arteries, the nervous system and immune system.

The curriculum could involve practical experience of volunteering in the community, with a written report that encourages the kids to reflect on the impact of the work they did. Older kids studying kindness may even, as part of their own projects, help tutor younger kids in some of their school subjects.

Perhaps kindness as a compulsory subject on the school curriculum would have further reaching consequences too, as kids move on after school and take what they have learned into the wider world. Perhaps it would have knock-on effects in business, in how business is conducted, on the reasons why business is conducted.

Many kids who learned kindness at school may become business leaders and influence how business is done. Many could find their way into politics and their knowledge and experience of kindness may influence decisions taken at national and international levels, which surely will benefit all of us. I think we may then see the world coming together in greater ways as we recognise and embrace our common humanity, as we celebrate our similarities instead of squabbling about our differences.

“We look for a glorious dénouement [end result],” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the film and book, Choice Point (which I’m also in), “when we will discover that we are actually members of one family.” I think kindness on the curriculum might really help us with such a goal.

This might sound idealistic or even fanciful thinking, but I think it’s already happening. There are pockets of this happening everywhere, even if not formally, not least at Baldwin High School, but also in the school that my friend John teaches at, where he teaches young kids on the ASD spectrum. Their whole school did a kindness project. Some of the kids in John’s class wrote letters to me a few weeks later to tell me the sorts of acts of kindness they had been doing and what kindness their classmates had shown them. I know there are many more schools making kindness a fundamental part of children’s education and experience.

Kindness matters. Kindness makes a difference. Being kind also inspires kindness in others. It is contagious. That is a fact. I think it’s spreading through schools now. And at a time of year when we worry about catching a cold or flu, kindness is one ‘bug’ that I think we would all do well to catch.

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)