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

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.

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

friends

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

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

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

1) It makes people seem more attractive

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

2) It makes us more generous

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

3) It makes us more trusting

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

4) It improves digestion

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

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

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

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

5) It speeds up wound healing

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

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

6) It’s good for the heart

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

How to produce oxytocin

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Footnotes:

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

A hug a day … boosts your immune system

hug illustrationI’ve written about hugs in some past blogs and books, in particular about how they produce the hormone oxytocin, which is good for the heart. I coined the term, ‘A hug a day keeps the cardiologist away’. I love hugs so I couldn’t wait to share some exciting new research about how they can protect you from the common cold.

The research was led by Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University. It was a simple study. His team asked 404 people how many hugs they received over a two-week period before exposing them to the virus that causes the common cold and monitoring them in quarantine.

It turned out that those who had the most hugs had lowest severity of cold symptoms.

There was a little more to the study. As well as hugs they monitored how much social support each person received. Those who felt most supported in their lives and relationships were most protected from the cold. Hugs accounted for a third of the overall effect.

It’s well known in science that when we’re involved in ongoing personal conflicts with people we’re less able to fight off colds and other infections. Have you noticed that? It’s presumed that the stress involved in the conflict can suppress the immune system. So the hug study was looking at the opposite effect – emotional, social support; i.e. support and closeness instead of conflict and distance. While conflicts suppress the immune system, the study implied that hugs boost it. Generally speaking, you can think of it as emotional support and closeness is good for us while consistent conflict and emotional distance isn’t so much.

I love this kind of research. It motivates me to keep spreading the word that we should be nice to one another, help each other, and of course hug each other. Hugs are easy to do. You just, well, give someone a hug. That’s it. Who would have imagined it can be so good for health.

I’ve previously written about the effects of hugs on the heart (in ‘Why Kindness is Good for You‘). Research has shown that hugs produce the hormone oxytocin, which is cardioprotective. That means it protects the heart. Oxytocin, and therefore hugs, reduces blood pressure and helps sweep arteries clear of free radicals and inflammation.

So this new research compliments the overall health-giving effect of hugs. Not only are they good for the heart, they are also good for the immune system.

So, I guess, we might as well make sure we give out a few hugs today, and of course welcome those offered to us too.

The 5 Side-Effects of Compassion


pink rose background
As an ex-pharmaceutical scientist, I enjoy reframing the term ‘side-effects’. We typically think of side-effects in the negative, as in the side-effects of drugs. But many of our positive behaviors also have side-effects.

Below are 5 side-effects of compassion.

1) Compassion Wires the Brain

In some ways we can think of the brain like a muscle in that as we exercise certain regions they grow, just as muscles do when we exercise them.

Compassion causes growth on the left side of the brain’s prefrontal cortex region, which is the bit above the eyes. The effect of this is that we find it easier to be compassionate and kind. Compassion begets compassion through creating actual changes in the brain.

2) Compassion is Good for the Heart

Compassion fosters warm emotional contact. When we connect with others in this way, we produce the hormone ‘oxytocin’. One of its key roles is in the maintenance of cardiovascular health. It dilates the arteries and reduces blood pressure and also helps clear out potentially disease-causing agents.

3) Compassion Slows Ageing

Research shows a strong correlation between compassion and ‘vagal tone’, which is a term that describes the health and fitness of the vagus nerve, much as muscle tone describes the muscles.

The vagus nerve controls the body’s inflammatory response (knows as the Inflammatory Reflex). As we increase vagal tone, we improve the body’s ability to reduce inflammation. Research indeed shows that a practice of cultivation of compassion, where volunteers practiced the Loving Kindness Meditation, actually reduced inflammation.

As inflammation is one of the major agers of the body, compassion, through its affects on the vagus nerve, slows ageing.

4) Compassion Improves Relationships

Research shows that compassion improves relationships. It fosters emotional connections between two people. A structured practice of compassion meditation improves the quality of personal and professional relationships.

Compassion also breaks down barriers in relationships with people who challenge us. When we see someone suffering and we are moved to help, we forget reasons why we might have a difficulty with the person as our natural tendency to care takes over. In these moments, we see only good and express only good. Compassion brings us back to ourselves.

5) Compassion Motivates Kindness

When we see someone suffering we feel empathy. Empathy is ‘I feel with you’, as we imagine and share someone’s pain. Empathy evolves into compassion, which is ‘I feel for you’, as we not only share the pain but we want the person’s suffering eased. Compassion quickly evolves into kindness, where we are moved to do something to ease the person’s suffering.

I think of empathy – compassion – kindness as the growth of a flower from a seed. Empathy is the seed that grows into a stem of compassion, which then fully blooms into an act of kindness.

 

******

References: David R Hamilton, PhD, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ (Hay House, 2010).

Wired for Kindness

hand holding dnaI was having a conversation recently with someone in business who told me he heard that humans are naturally selfish. He asked my opinion on the subject. I disagreed and explained why I believe we are, in fact, genetically wired to be kind.

Genetic wiring (our genome) is shaped over millions of years as humans adapt to the environment. To use a rather black and white (or pink and blue) example, say a tribe of our ancient ancestors a few million years ago had a pink gene and another tribe had a blue gene. Let’s say the pink gene is associated with kindness and say the blue gene is very much a ‘me first’ gene.

The tribe with the pink gene will help each other out in difficult times, allowing strong bonds to form. With less helping and more self-serving, the bonds in the blue tribe are much weaker.

Through millions of years of evolution, tribes with the strongest bonds thrive because when there’s danger, they work together, when there’s hunger, they share. Bonds are forged as we pool together. It’s the same today. Friendships last the test of time when they’re built around kindness, caring, compassion, laughter, and forgiveness.

When bonds are weak, relationships fracture when pressed or stressed. Without the strength of the group, individuals in the blue tribe are less likely to survive difficult times. The tribe, on the whole, is less likely to thrive.

As the blue tribe gradually dies out over time, the blue gene is more or less lost from the gene pool. The pink gene, on the other hand, finds its way into most of the human species because it’s a gene that helps us to thrive.

In this way, nature has ‘selected’ the pink gene as being the gene most suited to the environment. This is ‘Natural Selection’.

So it’s true to say that we are indeed born to be kind. Of course, we have a survival instinct, and we can be selfish when we need to be, but outside of immediate survival needs, our dominant nature is to be kind. It’s in our genes.

There’s strong modern day evidence that we have kindness genes. Scientists studying different variants (shades) of the oxytocin receptor gene (a good candidate for a pink gene) found that our natural tendency to be kind was related to which variant of the gene we have.

The same gene can come in several variants, or shades as I like to think of them. It fits nicely with my use of color to describe genes. You might enjoy my blog ‘Fifty Shades of Pink’, which discusses the subject. If kindness was not in our genes, there would be no connection between a gene variant (a shade of pink) and our tendency for kindness.

Another piece of evidence is that the vagus nerve is strongly correlated with compassion. People with highest vagal tone (a term a bit like muscle tone, used to imply a healthy vagus nerve) tend to be most compassionate, again a demonstration of the links between genetics and kindness.

Of course, as we all know, nothing is all in the genes. There’s always interplay between nature and nurture, that is, genetics and our experiences in life. The natural tendency to be kind can be developed and it can also be suppressed. People can learn to be selfish. Through nature and nurture, we have quite a variety of behaviors in our world, but left alone, we are born to be kind. Our nature is to care.

I’d say that the classical business model got it wrong when they promoted the idea that we’re naturally selfish and it’s all about survival of the fittest. The idea that selfishness is our nature and it’s all about competition paved the way for all sorts of unethical, profit-at-all-costs behaviors.

Evolution was misunderstood. The fittest is not the strongest or the fastest, it’s the kindest – he or she with the greatest capacity to form strong bonds.

Many have said that kindness and compassion are signs of weakness. I’d say they’re signs of strength … and intelligence, especially if we want to thrive in life.

 

RESOURCES

For references to individual pieces of research, see

David R Hamilton PhD, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You

Dacher Keltner, ‘Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life‘.

7 Ways that Love is Good for Your Health

Painted heartLove feels good. I think we’d all agree on that. But it also has some surprising health benefits. Here’s a list of 7 of them:

 

1) Love is good for your heart

I think we all expect this. Biologically, love produces the hormone ‘oxytocin’. It’s why it’s often referred to as the ‘Love Hormone’ or even ‘Cuddle Chemical’ (yes, hugs produce it too). Research also shows that it is a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. Simply put, it protects your cardiovascular system: it reduces blood pressure, helps clear your arteries of free radicals and inflammation, and even helps repair damaged blood vessels.

2) Love makes you happy

Emotionally, love makes us feel euphoric. We even feel tingling sensations in our hearts. In the brain, love elevates levels of both dopamine and serotonin, which contribute to this effect.

3) Love improves general health

Some research that compared couples whose relationship was close with those whose relationship wasn’t so much, found that couples who were in a close relationship reported their health as ‘very good or excellent’. The health reports were poorer in the other couples.

4) Love is good for your immune system

Every couple has arguments. That’s to be expected. But research shows that couples who argue in a more loving, positive way, were measured to have higher immediate immune function compared to couples who showed more negative behaviour. I guess, even when we argue, we should remember to be kind.

5) Love can help you get fit

OK, this might be obvious in the sense that regular sex is good for the heart, but there is another way that love can aid fitness. We all know that many people who start on an exercise program quit within 6 months to a year (you’ve probably been there yourself – seen it, done it, got the t-shirt), but did you know that when you work out with a romantic partner, not only do you work harder (perhaps you’re trying to impress) but you are also more likely to keep the program up?

6) Love can help you live longer

Research that compares married couples (in happy marriages) with single people shows that married people lived longer. And the good news for men is that the effect is especially pronounced in us. Seems we benefit from all that nagging good advice. Married men are less likely than single men to over indulge in drinking and smoking, which is better for health in the long term.

7) Love can lessen physical pain

Researchers who measures pain perception typically ask volunteers to place their hands in ice-water or receive electric shocks. Electric shock pain-perception-studies have shown that the experience of pain is lessened when we hold someone’s hand. And it’s even better news for females – pain decreases most in women in happy marriages who held their husbands’ hand.

5 Reasons Why Good Relationships are Healthy

Heart Social NetworkWe all know how enjoyable it is to have happy times with friends and family. These times are also good for our health. Here’s 5 reasons why:

 

1) They’re good for the heart

Positive experiences with friends and family produce the hormone oxytocin. Research shows that oxytocin helps to lower blood pressure and also helps keep the chemical precursors to cardiovascular disease at bay. It is a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone (protects the cardiovascular system) and therefore good relationships with friends and family are also cardioprotective.

In fact, a 1960’s US census found substantially lower levels of heart disease in people from the town of Roseto. After years of scientific investigation into the seeming anomaly (no one under the age of 50 in the town had ever died of heart disease), it turned out that their social connectedness was they key to this. This was a highly ‘connected’ small town, where everyone knew everyone else and many households had 4 generations of family living there.

 

2) They help us to live longer

Most longevity research in the past has taught us that among the keys to living a long, healthy life are that we eat well, sleep well, exercise well, and manage our stress levels. But more recent research is now telling us that social interaction is actually one of THE most important factors in living a long, healthy life.

In fact, a 2010 study that looked at 188 Australians over the age of 100 found that a close network of family and friends was highly significant in determining their lifespan.

And here’s one for the men: Large-scale studies that compare men in relationships with men who are single show that cardiovascular health is better in married men, and as cardiovascular disease is a major cause of reduced lifespan, being in a relationship actually helps us (especially men) live longer.

 

3) They’re good for our emotional health

Having positive interactions with friends and family make us feel good. We laugh more, we feel joy, we smile more. Our spirits are generally lifted compared with not having these relationships.

Research that examines the connectivity in social networks has found that people who are more connected tend to be happier than people who have less interaction with friends and family.

And an added bonus is that we tend to be contagious when we’re happy; not in the infectious disease way but in that happiness spreads from person to person. It’s known as Emotional Contagion. Positive interactions make us happier and then we spread that happiness in the rest of the interactions we have.

 

4) They buffer the difficult times

Friends and family help us through difficult times in our lives. They provide shoulders to cry on when we’re struggling and they help us to find emotional and spiritual strength. Most people have lent on that shoulder and have also been that shoulder for someone else. The connection is something that is necessary for our thriving.

One study where people were given a stressful task found that they recovered faster if they were simply reminded of some of their positive relationships.

 

5) They’re good for the immune system

Connections with others are important for the human species as a whole. Having relationships actually ensured the survival of our species over millions of years of evolution. It’s why the oxytocin gene (which produces oxytocin and helps us bond with one another) is one of the oldest in the human genome (500 million years old).

It should be no surprise to learn, then, that having good relationships is linked with the immune system, since it is so crucial for the human species.

Indeed, a simple study where 334 volunteers were exposed to the common cold found that those who had strong relationships were about 50% less likely to develop symptoms.

 

References:

Where links are not provided, the references above are taken from my books, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ and ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking’.

The 5 Side-Effects of Kindness

open hand butterfly**Repost**

When we think of side effects the first thing that springs to mind are the side effects of drugs. But who’d have thought that kindness could have side effects too?

Well, it does! And positive ones at that.

1) Kindness Makes us Happier
When we do something kind for someone else, we feel good. On a spiritual level, many people feel that this is because it is the right thing to do and so we’re tapping into something deep and profound inside of us that says, ‘This is who I am.’

On a biochemical level, it is believed that the good feeling we get is due to elevated levels of the brain’s natural versions of morphine and heroin, which we know as endogenous opioids. They cause elevated levels of dopamine in the brain and so we get a natural high, often referred to as ‘Helper’s High’.

2) Kindness Gives us Healthier Hearts
Acts of kindness are often accompanied by emotional warmth. Emotional warmth produces the hormone, oxytocin, in the brain and throughout the body. Of recent interest is its significant role in the cardiovascular system.

Oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide in blood vessels, which dilates (expands) the blood vessels. This reduces blood pressure and therefore oxytocin is known as a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone because it protects the heart (by lowering blood pressure). The key is that acts kindness can produce oxytocin and therefore kindness can be said to be cardioprotective.

3) Kindness Slows Ageing
Ageing on a biochemical level is a combination of many things, but two culprits that speed the process are Free Radicals and Inflammation, both of which result from making unhealthy lifestyle choices.

But remarkable research now shows that oxytocin (that we produce through emotional warmth) reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardiovascular system and so slows ageing at source. Incidentally these two culprits also play a major role in heart disease so this is also another reason why kindness is good for the heart.

There have also been suggestions in the scientific journals of the strong link between compassion and the activity of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve, as well as regulating heart rate, also controls inflammation levels in the body. One study that used the Tibetan Buddhist’s ‘Loving Kindness Compassion’ meditation found that kindness and compassion did, in fact, reduce inflammation in the body, mostly likely due to its effects on the vagus nerve.

4) Kindness Makes for Better Relationships
This is one of the most obvious points. We all know that we like people who show us kindness. This is because kindness reduces the emotional distance between two people and so we feel more ‘bonded’. It’s something that is so strong in us that it’s actually a genetic thing. We are wired for kindness.

Our evolutionary ancestors had to learn to cooperate with one another. The stronger the emotional bonds within groups, the greater were the chances of survival and so ‘kindness genes’ were etched into the human genome.

So today when we are kind to each other we feel a connection and new relationships are forged, or existing ones strengthened.

5) Kindness is Contagious
When we’re kind we inspire others to be kind and studies show that it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends – to 3-degrees of separation. Just as a pebble creates waves when it is dropped in a pond, so acts of kindness ripple outwards touching others’ lives and inspiring kindness everywhere the wave goes.

A recent scientific study reported than an anonymous 28-year-old person walked into a clinic and donated a kidney. It set off a ‘pay it forward’ type ripple effect where the spouses or other family members of recipients of a kidney donated one of theirs to someone else in need. The ‘domino effect’, as it was called in the New England Journal of Medicine report, spanned the length and breadth of the United States of America, where 10 people received a new kidney as a consequence of that anonymous donor.

******
References

5 side effects jacket imageReferences to all studies can be found in David R Hamilton, PhD., ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness‘ (Hay House, February 2017).

4 Reasons Why Dogs Are Good for Your Health

Oscar my yellow labrador retrieverOne of the things I love about writing blogs is that I get to talk about stuff that’s relevant in my life, where I’ve been inspired, had a wise insight, or learned something new.

I’ve written a few blogs about my dog Oscar and what I’ve learned from him. If you haven’t been keeping up to date, he’s a yellow (golden) Labrador retriever and he’s 11 and a half months old (that’s him in the photo!).

We moved house a few weeks ago and now live in the country (in a beautiful village called Bridge of Allan, in central Scotland). I’m so enjoying the long healthy walks. I say healthy, because I feel healthy with all the miles I walk, breathing in the fresh country air. It got me thinking that dogs really are incredibly healthy for us.

Here’s 4 reasons why:

1) Dogs boost your immune system

Many people find that when they first get a dog they get much fewer colds. The main reason for this is that dogs (and puppies) bring dirt into the house on their paws. The dirt contains tiny bacteria that gives our immune systems something to work on. Like muscles, the immune system needs to work to build its strength.

Living in too clean an environment can lessen the immune system. It’s one of the suggested scientific reasons for an increase in allergies over the past few decades.

When a dog brings dirt into the house on it’s paws the human immune systems go to work, building up its muscles like we’ve gone to the ‘immune system gym’. As this happens, the immune system becomes more robust and resilient, and we’re more protected from colds and other illnesses and diseases.

2) The give us plenty of exercise

I walk about 20 miles a week with Oscar. I’ve lost about 8 pounds in weight since he came into our lives. Last weekend I ran the ‘Perth Kilt Run’, which is a 5k run in Perth (Scotland) and you have to wear a kilt. I ran a rather respectable 24 minutes and 39 seconds, which I think is good considering I hadn’t done any running training and a kilt gets quite heavy after about 4k :-).

I’m certain that walking all those miles with Oscar was excellent training for me.

3) They’re good for the heart

Research shows that interacting with dogs elevates levels of the hormone, oxytocin. As well as it’s role in childbirth and breast feeding (oxytocin is involved in the ‘letting down’ response of breast milk), oxytocin is a powerful ‘cardioprotective’ hormone (it protects the heart and cardiovascular system). Research shows that it lowers blood pressure and significantly reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation, two families of chemicals involved in cardiovascular disease.

Couple this with a stronger immune system and more exercise, it’s why research also shows that the chances of a second heart attack, for men who had one previously, is 400% lower for men who have a dog compared with men who don’t.

4) They’re good for mental health

We’re a social species. Humans need social contact. It’s built into our genome and is why we’re healthier and live longer when we connect with each other. Social network research shows that we’re healthier the more connected we are.

Part of this reason is, of course, oxytocin. Dogs are great company and we bond strongly with them. It’s not at all uncommon for people to talk to their dogs. I know! I talk to Oscar and tell him what I’m up to. 🙂

Human and animal contact also helps counter stress and is protective towards depression, so having a dog is also good for our mental health. Of course, we can also say the same for cats (in case you’re a cat owner reading this and are wondering).

 

So overall, I think it’s nice to reflect on how dogs are so good for our health and to feel deep gratitude for their presence in our lives. I feel immensely grateful for Oscar’s presence. He has changed my life for the better on so many levels.