How searching for my lost suitcase led me to kindness

kindness is like magicI left my suitcase on a train recently. Believe it or not, I was meditating as the train approached the station. The only thing I wasn’t mindful of was that my case was on the rack above me. 🙂

I only realised this when I arrived at my hotel about half an hour later. I returned to Waterloo station in London, where my train had arrived, and a young man named Abdullah was so incredibly kind and compassionate as he took me from staff member to staff member around the station. He was so helpful, and kind, and went the extra mile to do everything he could to help me. I didn’t get my case but, as strange as it might sound, it was worth it for the time spent witnessing the kindness and compassion of another human being.

I write and speak a lot about kindness and try to quietly do my little but here and there, but I suppose maybe I’d forgotten what it’s like to need the kindness of another person.

As we were parting company, I had an intuition to offer him a copy of my book, ‘The Little Book of Kindness’, which I had on me at the time, as some way as saying ‘Thank You’. He was so genuinely grateful and then HE thanked ME … for having been so gentle, calm and understanding throughout the time we’d been trying to find my case.

It was a lovely exchange. Two males not trying to be manly, but just allowing an honest and sincere interaction to take place and honestly expressing what they felt in the moment.

So I spent the afternoon buying clothes, toiletries, etc, to keep me going for the next few days while I was in London. That’s when I received more kindness. I mentioned to the shop assistant that the reason I was buying such a mixture of stuff was because I’d left my case on a train. To my complete surprise, she briefly looked around her, as if to check if the coast was clear, then she put my purchases through on a staff discount. It was a mark of empathy for the situation I found myself in and I was incredibly touched.

So it was an interesting day. Very much enjoyable on the human connection front. I’m really not that bothered about losing my clothes; they can be replaced. But connection is invaluable. Receiving kindness and connection made it all worthwhile.

Acceptance vs Assertion

Mountain landscape with hiking trail and view of beautiful lakes Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel Island, Azores, Portugal. (Mountain landscape with hiking trail and view of beautiful lakes Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel Island, Azores, Portugal., ASCII, 118 compI’ve been thinking a bit recently about finding the balance between accepting things as they are and going with the flow and asserting your will or pushing for what you want. There’s a balance. There’s a time and a place for both, but the more I accept and go with the flow, the more things seem to work out better.

I was on a long-haul flight recently, flying BA from London to Sydney. During the second leg of the flight, after refuelling in Singapore, my TV screen wasn’t working. That meant I couldn’t watch the movie I was so looking forward to watching that would help pass the time over the next 7 and a half hours.

The air stewardess tried resetting the screen a few times, but it just didn’t work. I thought, ‘Oh well, a great opportunity to get on with some study and meditation’. She actually really appreciated the fact that I didn’t get upset or annoyed in the slightest. I just smiled and thanked her for trying. In gratitude for my seemingly relaxed and accepting attitude, she handed me a couple of mini-bottles of red wine. So, I got on with some studying that I really needed to do. It turns out that it was exactly the right thing as I made a few insights that I hadn’t made before that were really important.

A few hours later came meal time. They didn’t have any vegetarian meals (we were supposed to pre-order, but I hadn’t realised). The air stewardess (a different one) apologised. Again, I decided not to resist things and just go with the flow. Fasting is actually really healthy, so I accepted the fact that I’d do a kind of mini-fast. She seemed relieved that I didn’t make a fuss. Oh, and she also gave me a couple of mini bottles of red wine by way of apology.

About half an hour later, she appeared with a dish that she’d ‘borrowed’ from business class. It was really good – a tasty mushroom pasta dish that wasn’t available in economy class (coach), where I was seated. Since I had been so nice about it, she did everything she could to find me some food. Later, when we were being offered a sandwich before landing, she apologised once again, this time at the lack of vegetarian sandwiches. The first stewardess (of the TV screen) was in the opposite aisle and overheard. She quickly walked to the font of the plane and back again with a really lovely veggie sandwich for me.

Sometimes, we fight to get ourselves heard, or to get what we imagine we deserve and, granted, there are times when that is the right thing to do. I personally find, though, that when I don’t resist and look instead for the opportunity or hidden meaning in what’s happening, if I just shrug, accept, and get on with things, I find that things tend to work out better.

Acceptance in both instances brought me something better than the original thing I could have fought for. I got a lovely meal and a sandwich, great insights from my studies, accumulated 4 mini-bottles of red wine, and I brought a relieved and grateful smile to some faces due to my attitude.

Part of acceptance, for me, comes from a belief that we are always being nudged, directed, drawn (call it what you will) towards things that are best for us. That’s my belief, but it’s useful to have beliefs about what acceptance means for us, even if it’s just a belief that every cloud has a silver lining.

Some people find it useful to seek a deeper meaning in what’s happening, others find it a spiritual challenge to be able to accept and not resist; rising to the challenge of acceptance helps them shrug off seemingly challenging situations or even losses.

Acceptance can be also be about letting go of things. Buddhists talk of the law of impermanence, that all things are transient and must change. Everything must change. Everything evolves and grows, even you. People have to accept the changes in you, lest you feel pressured to remain the same for them. And so, you must also allow others to grow and change as they need to. As the Buddhists say, ‘Things come. Let them. Things go. Let them’.

Change is actually the only constant in the entire universe.

Change is inevitable … except from a vending machine.

Empathy Matters

elderly woman smiling with her caregiverEmpathy is the ability to understand and relate to other people and animals.

Empathy is being able to see the world or a situation from someone else’s perspective and also appreciate how they might feel.

Empathy can even be in walking in someone else’s shoes, so to speak.

It is the precursor to compassion and kindness. In the book, ‘Self Compassion’, Kristen Neff defines empathy as ‘I feel with you’.

Empathy then evolves into compassion, which we can think of as, ‘I feel for you’. The difference between empathy and compassion being that compassion is a move towards wishing the person freedom from their suffering.

To be honest, the difference is mostly academic and I don’t think, in most people’s everyday experience, it actually matters whether we call that sympathetic feeling (yes, we can think of sympathy in the same way) empathy or compassion. But if you wanted to recognise a difference then you may see it in brain activation.

Empathy (I feel with you) activates the insula of the brain (the empathy centre). Compassion activates the insula too, but it also activates the left side of the prefrontal cortex, a region associated with positive emotion and also conscious decision making. In other words, considering brain activation, you can think of compassion as experiencing someone’s pain with them (empathy), with the addition of a conscious wishing that they be free of their suffering (I feel for you instead of I feel with you).

But, as I said, the difference is mostly academic and I don’t feel it matters whether a person refers to the feeling of feeling another’s pain as empathy, compassion, or sympathy. The intent is the same.

Mostly, the word empathy conjures up the idea of empathising with others. But it helps a lot when someone empathises with us, when they share our pain. It even helps us physiologically.

In a study of over 700 patients who attended their doctor’s surgery for onset symptoms of cold, some received a normal consultation and others received an ‘enhanced’ consultation, where the doctor emphasised empathy. The patient filled out a CARE (Consultation and Relational Empathy) questionnaire so that researchers could asses empathy levels and they had their symptoms tracked for the study.

Those who received the empathy-enhanced visit (and scored the doctor a 10/10 for empathy) had lower severity of cold, recovered faster than everyone else, and also had significantly higher immune responses. Empathy mattered … a lot!

We can interpret this as the patient feeling listened to and reassured by the doctor. This activates part of the placebo mechanism, which helps them recover faster. And note that I wrote ‘placebo mechanism’ and not ‘placebo effect’. This is intentional, lest we assume that the placebo effect is all in our heads. As I’ve written in my books and in other blogs, belief or expectation produces physical changes in the brain. Brain chemistry changes in response to a person’s beliefs or expectations. The mechanism (the biological process that occurs) differs depending on the medical condition and the treatment given.

Another factor is that when a patient is shown empathy, it reduces their stress levels, which often accompany uncertainty regarding their symptoms, and this reduction in stress also leads to an increased immune response.

The bottom line in the study is that empathy was related to a better immune response and a faster recovery in the patients.

I think of empathy as a currency. In our ever-more interconnected world, the ability to understand, empathise, and relate to others is becoming increasingly more important.

Dollars, yuan, or Euros are not the currencies of the future. Empathy is the currency we all need to be investing in.

 

References:

P. Rakel, et al, ‘Perception of empathy in the therapeutic encounter: effects on the common cold’, Patient Education and Counselling 2011, 85, 390-97 (Link to study, DOI: 10.1016/j.pec.2011.01.009)

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 right thing to do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The opposite of stress

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

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

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

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

Stress increases blood pressure, kindness reduces it.

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

Stress weakens the immune system, kindness boosts it.

Stress makes us unhappy; kindness makes us happy.

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

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

The Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just be kind!

By David R Hamilton, PhD

Author of ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’

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

The table below summarises the effects of stress vs kindness

How kindness can reduce wrinkles

mother showing kindness to daughterYes, you read correctly!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what has kindness got to do with it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, you want to reduce wrinkles? Be kind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Want to learn more?

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

The power of a hug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is the power of a hug.

The art of self-correction

daisies growingSeveral years ago, I spent time as an athletics coach, coaching young people in the long jump and triple jump. It was one of these things that just kind of happened.

I had no previous coaching experience, and certainly wasn’t a technical expert in the logistics of jumping, but the existing coach was moving on and asked if I’d take over. I’d been training in the long jump myself but mostly got by on raw speed. So without a great deal of know-how, I decided to do it my way.

During each training session I led the athletes through basic routines – things I’d done myself. But throughout each training session, my strategy was mostly about lifting the spirits of each athlete in the squad by saying positive things that helped them feel good about themselves. I’d noticed that my chemistry teacher at school did that with me.

He always made me feel good about myself, pointing out how well I was doing, that I had potential, expressing joy when I’d got an answer correct. As a result, I loved being in the chemistry class, excelled in it, went on to university and finished up with a PhD in the subject. I wondered if the athletes would excel in their own ways if I did for them what my chemistry teacher did for me.

It seemed to work. The athletes made great improvements. So much so, in fact, that every single one of them became medallists in their age groups at the year-end national club finals.

The athletes would often notice by themselves where they could improve in the technical aspects of the event. That’s what happens when you’re enjoying something. They also learned by observing each other. Then they made many of their own adjustments accordingly. By coming from inside themselves rather than just from my instruction, they seemed to take more responsibility for their training and more pride in the event. Success, for them, was an inside job.

I call this kind of thing, where we make adjustments by ourselves, ‘Self-Correction’. It’s where we identify where we can improve and make corrections when necessary. It’s an aspect of self-awareness, but where we then act on what we become aware of.

We can apply it to all manner of things. If you’re learning mindfulness, for example, because you need to manage your stress levels, you can self-correct simply by noticing when you’re not feeling calm and doing something about it.

I apply it to personal growth work. I used it extensively when I was working on my self-love (self-esteem) project. Regular awareness of how I was feeling and how I was acting in particular environments helped me a lot to make useful adjustments.

It seems like a no brainer, pretty obvious stuff. And it is, but you’d be surprised at how little we actually do what we know. That’s why I shared my story of athletics coaching. As simple as it sounds, just knowing that you can make big improvements through self-correction helps enormously. If you’re trying to reduce stress, for example, knowing that self-correction can help will actually cause you to notice times when you need to relax.

A simple awareness of the power of self-correction generates a feeling of hope. And that hope shifts the centre of gravity away from seeking solutions in other places, and into yourself.

And that makes all the difference.