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.

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.