You might have heard of telomeres! They’re the little end-caps on DNA that stops it unraveling, a bit like the little plastic caps on shoelaces that stop them from unraveling.
Telomeres have become popular because they’re closely linked with the age of the body. Short telomeres tend to mean faster ageing.
Lots of research has now shown that meditation can slow ageing. I’ve written about some of the research in some other blogs. See: (Harvard Study Finds that Meditation Impacts DNA) (Can Compassion Beat Botox in the Anti-Ageing Stakes?)
One of my favourite meditations is the Buddhists’ Loving-Kindness Meditation. It helps you cultivate a sentiment of love, kindness, and compassion for yourself and others. It always leaves me feeling warm inside.
I am pleased to learn that scientists have now studied the effect of the Loving-Kindness Meditation on the length of telomeres. Fifteen practitioners of the Meditation were compared with 22 people in a control group. They were all around the same age. Each person had their telomeres measured.
The study found that the practitioners of the Loving-Kindness Meditation had longer telomeres than the control group. Basically, it meant that even though they were all around the same age, the people who practiced loving-kindness were physiologically younger.
And if you’re a female reading this, you’ll be very pleased to know the following: Female Loving-Kindness Meditation practitioners had the longest telomeres of all! The meditation seems to effect women more than men.
You have two ages. There’s your chronological age, which is your actual age. So if you were born in March 1960 your chronological age is 54 (I’m writing this in August 2014). Your physiological age, on the other hand, is the age of your body and it is affected by diet, lifestyle, stress, attitude … and clearly love, kindness, and compassion.
An unhealthy diet, lifestyle, or lots of stress, all tend to age the body faster. A person whose chronological age is 54 but who leads a very unhealthy lifestyle might have a physiological age of 68. Another person with the same chronological age but who leads a very healthy life might have a physiological age of 37.
The length of your telomeres is a good estimate of your physiological age.
So the Loving-Kindness Meditation basically reduces physiological age. You really can grow younger! You can’t become chronologically younger, but it’s your physiological age that ultimately matters.
How to do the meditation:
You can use the following set of statements:
May ____ be filled with loving kindness, be well, peaceful and at ease, happy, and free of suffering.
Where I’ve put a ____, insert first yourself and repeat it three times, then choose a loved one, and again repeat three times, followed by someone emotionally neutral to you, again three times, then a difficult person in your life; that’s someone from the present or past who causes or has caused you stress and you still have a negative emotional charge towards. Again you wish them the sentiments three times. Then you finish by wishing the sentiment to all sentient beings, again three times. That’s one cycle.
You can do as many or as few cycles as you wish. Some people like to do a few so that they can focus on their closest loved ones. Some people focus on the same difficult person on all of their cycles. There is no rule that says you have to do it in any particular way. What matters most is the sentiment of love, kindness, and compassion.
Have you ever had one of those dreams that felt so real that it was more than a dream?
I had one a few weeks ago, shortly before I got up. It was a strange dream. I was with two men. I seemed to be in some kind of military service. We were in a room and knew that an explosion was imminent and we were about to die. I seemed to believe that I would still exist afterwards.
Seconds later, the explosion came. I felt warmth. No pain! Just a warmth on my skin. Then I was in a bright white place that was filled with soft, warm, white light. I remember noticing that I had no form (body). I was also aware that I was on the ‘other side’ and a little pleased that, even though my body was gone, I was still alive.
Then I heard a female voice whispering to me. It kept saying, over and over again, “Your thoughts create! Your thoughts create! Your thoughts create.” Then it became, “Your thoughts create your world! Your thoughts create your world.” I remember the whisper so clearly. I can hear it now as I write these words.
I learned later that day that my Dad’s aunt Lizzie had died that morning. Might my dream somehow have been a communication from her? I thought so.
Kyle asked the angels about my experience. He then told me that, because of my sensitive perception, my soul knew Lizzie was passing and it reminded me that, no matter what we way go, we just return to an ever-present love and peace. He then told me that Lizzie was acknowledging what I’ve known all along, so that I’d have a more personal experience of heaven. He said my mind basically created a scene of going to heaven so I could see that it was all love.
Wow! … was my response. I trust Kyle very much and have been on the receiving end of his astonishing skills of other-worldly communication on more than one occasion. I believe in what he said. It feels right to me.
Some might think that a scientist has no place talking about angels. I would disagree strongly. I do not subscribe to the notion that consciousness is inside the head, nor produced by brain chemistry. Such a notion doesn’t account for the wealth of research that demonstrates correlations between the neural states of people separated by a distance. I believe that consciousness is fundamental to reality and that, in a sense then, everything is animated with consciousness.
In some ways, the brain acts like an aerial that tunes to a frequency, that extracts from reality what you know of as yourself.
My belief is that that just as different shapes, forms, textures and colours of life exist, so different shapes, forms, textures and colours of consciousness exist too, some of which we might interpret or know as angels, guides, or deceased loved ones.
Could my Dad’s aunt have visited me for real? Her consciousness? I believe so. I believe that after her brain ceased to function, her consciousness was no longer identified with her physical body. She was then able to be anywhere and, in my case, she was able to communicate with me.
Fortunately, I ‘heard’ her and appreciate the reminder!
My personal experience of visualization is that it is highly powerful for a few different reasons. And it’s good to know why! Maybe that’s just my science training, where I need to know the how’s and the why’s. But, honestly, there is no question that understanding the how’s and why’s actually bring you more belief in yourself and in the process of what you are doing. That’s why I’ve written this short blog about the reasons why visualization is so powerful.
Whether you are visualizing on a health goal or a life improvement one, visualization helps a lot … for the following reasons:
1) It makes you feel empowered
When you visualize on better health or achieving a goal, it brings you a sense of inner empowerment. This is because you start to notice small changes in your life as you move in the direction you want to go in.
With health, you start to see improvements and it brings you a belief in yourself and in the process of what you are doing. The effect of this is that it shifts the sense of power away from the outside world, where you often feel powerless, to the inside, where you feel you are more in control of what happens. And this makes all the difference because it breeds motivation, creativity, and positive emotion.
With life goals, you start to realize that there is actually a lot you can do to move yourself in the direction you wish.
2) Your brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary
Research shows that if one person does something and another person visualizes doing the thing, the same brain areas are activated in both of them. And if they keep doing the thing or imagining doing the thing, their brain regions undergo actual physical change (called neuroplasticity) to the same degree.
You can harness this for health. A growing body of research shows that when you visualize improving health, the body moves towards health. And you can harness it for life goals. When you imagine living your dream, your brain processes it as if it is happening now. In fact, afterwards, to your brain, it’s a memory.
3) It focuses your willpower
Regular visualization helps to focus your mind on what you want. One of the problems many people face when aiming for goals is that they lose focus, becoming distracted by the goings on of life. When you visualize on a regular basis, especially if you set aside some definite time each day, it focuses your mind. It trains you to hold your focus despite what else is going on.
And as you stay focused you spot opportunities to move towards your goal. If it’s a health goal, you tend to learn extra insights that can help you. If it’s a life change goal, you’re more likely to be in the right place at the right time.
4) It has health benefits
Countless people all around the world use visualization to help facilitate their recoveries from illness and disease. The most common strategy is where they imagine changing a picture of illness into a picture of wellness, and they do it over and over again, 2 or 3 times a day.
And you can get as detailed as you like. Some people visualize cleaning individual cells, restoring them to health and wellness, and others simple visualize a whole body region in perfect condition. Both scenarios work equally well.
There is now a growing body of research that shows this working. Whether it is through a harnessing of willpower, a sense of empowerment, or that the brain processes what you are imagining as real, or a combination of all three, there is no question that visualization for better health has positive benefits.
5) If you believe in visualization, it works even better
Belief carries great power! The placebo effect shows us that belief can heal. Belief changes brain chemistry and brings about immune, hormonal, and physiological changes throughout the body.
When one person takes a painkiller and the other a placebo, for instance, brain scans look strikingly similar. This is because the person’s belief produces its own chemistry that brings about what they expect to happen – ie., a reduction in pain. In this case, the brain produces natural painkillers (endogenous opiates).
When you do anything and believe in yourself, your ability is enhanced. Any elite athlete will tell you that. When you visualize better health, believing that what you are doing has powerful effects, your own belief amplifies the power of what you are doing. The same is true with life goals; your own belief brings you more energy, motivation, and helps you spot opportunities when they arise.
Oh, and one final point: You don’t need to be a great ‘visualizer’. It’s the quality of your intent that matters most. Some people ‘see’ clearly, others just have a vague picture. Some people see out of their own eyes, others imagine looking at themselves from outside. All of these different versions work equally well. We’re all different and we all have different ways of doing things.
My experience is that your intention matters most. If your mind is pointed towards where you want to go, then you’re doing it right.
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).
Imagine the scenario: There’s 2 patients. One is connected to a morphine drip while he’s reading a book and the other is being given a morphine injection by the doctor. They’re both given morphine at the exact same time. One is aware of it but the other isn’t.
You’d think they’d both need the same amount of the drug, wouldn’t you? Well, it turns out that how much they actually need depends on whether they know about the morphine or not.
On average, people receiving morphine for pain need about 12mg to get the painkilling effect. But that’s only if they don’t know they’re getting it. If it’s administered in full view, they don’t need nearly so much to get the same effect.
The same kind of thing has been shown with diazepam. People sometimes get diazepam for anxiety after an operation. It turns out that the diazepam only works if the patients know they’re receiving it. If they don’t know they’re getting it then it doesn’t work. Weird isn’t it?
The reason is that it’s all in your mind!
Chemistry will play itself out in exactly the same way a hundred times out of a hundred in a test tube. But once you put human consciousness in the test tube, in other words the test tube is technically the human body, the chemistry is swayed left or right, so to speak, depending on what’s going on in your mind, depending on what you believe.
It’s true. What we believe shifts chemistry in our brains and bodies. If a person is given a placebo instead of morphine, but believes that it’s morphine and therefore believes in the pain killing effect, their brain produces a natural version of morphine to carry out the job of giving them what they are expecting to happen, i.e. a reduction in pain. The natural versions are known as endogenous opiates.
So when a person is receiving morphine from the doctor, who is administering it in plain sight, their belief in what morphine does produces endogenous opiates. So because the endogenous opiates are there to provide part of the pain killing effect, the patient doesn’t actually need as much morphine.
Imagine what it could mean for medicine if we could harness the placebo effect like this.
I was chatting with the director of PR at my publishers (Hay House) recently and she asked me about how I balanced work and home. It led to a conversation about what I considered a perfect weekend.
I told her that I’d describe a recent one as a ‘best of both worlds’ weekend.
I was up at 5am on the Saturday morning. OK, maybe that isn’t most people’s idea of perfect but I do love early mornings. I get up most mornings around 5.30am and write for 2 hours before Oscar, my 20-month-old Labrador, lets it be known that it’s his morning walk time.
On that Saturday, I was driving to Newcastle to run a full day workshop on ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’. It’s part of a UK-wide tour I’m doing. It was only a 3-hour drive and I enjoyed some coffee on the way.
I love teaching the subject. Despite probably teaching the same thing a good few hundred times, I never tire of it. I still get excited as I passionately explain the same concepts. I love the look on people’s faces as they just ‘get’ it – how much their mind is affecting their body all the time and how to harness it for health and healing. Quite often, people come on the workshops who are sick and I love the hope and sense of personal empowerment they leave with.
A lady on the workshop shared how, after reading my book, she’d used visualization to make a remarkable recovery from cancer. It’s these kinds of things, I think, that make it such a rewarding thing for me and reminds me why I do what I do.
I got home around 8pm on Saturday night to a welcome from Oscar that lasted about a quarter of an hour. He gets so excited that he needs his comfort blanket in his mouth to contain it. He been like that since he was a puppy. I so remember the days when he was a tiny ‘Andrex’ puppy.
It always makes me smile, those commercials. We see the cute little puppies playing with the toilet rolls. What we don’t see is when the camera goes off. They’re chewing the camera cables and ripping up the carpet. Ah, the fond memories …
Elizabeth, my partner, had some food set out for my arrival. I love crusty bread with olive oil to dip it in. So does Oscar, incidentally. He’ll drop anything – even a raw meaty bone – for the promise of that, or some butter. We enjoyed it with a refreshing glass of prosecco before having dinner. I was in heaven. I actually love the contrast of a full-on day of teaching, plus a long drive home, followed by a relaxing meal and some wine.
Next morning we took Oscar on a 4-mile walk in the countryside where we live. It was a beautiful day. I love blue skies. We live in the country so it’s especially beautiful when the sun is out. Oscar got to swim, which he loves. We live close to the river. His favourite place is a little beach area. He runs ahead of us when he recognises where he his and stands staring at us as we approach, waiting eagerly for us to throw a tennis ball in the water for him to retrieve.
He would have us doing that all day long. He swims out, brings it back, and drops it any our feet, looking up with excitement and wagging his tail for it to be thrown back out again.
I feel so happy on these walks. Oscar has been great for my health. I walk around 20 miles a week with him and I’m about 8 pounds lighter than I was before he came into our lives. Dogs are also great for the heart. Research has shown that interacting with a dog massively elevates levels of the hormone, oxytocin, which is a cardiovascular hormone (among it’s roles, including childbirth and breastfeeding) in both humans and dogs. It protects the heart from lifestyle damage.
The rest of the day was relaxing and just what I needed after a busy past week. My mum popped over in the afternoon. She loves to help with our very large garden. She also enjoys coffee from our coffee machine so we drink plenty of that. She received a long welcome from Oscar too.
So that’s why I called that weekend a ‘best of both worlds’ weekend. I got to enjoy two contrasting worlds, both of which I love. Teaching and having family time are what I thrive on.
What about you? What’s your idea of a perfect weekend?
I personally find that writing things helps me focus better than having stuff in my head. The same can be said of writing your goals down. Some people have theirs in the head but research shows that we’re more likely to achieve them if we put pen to paper.
Research at the Dominican University of California in 2007 involved 149 people aged between 23 and 72 years old, from many different backgrounds and cultures.
The purpose of the research was to compare some different techniques and strategies used to achieve our goals.
Group 1 was asked to think about goals they’d like to accomplish over the next 4 weeks and reflect on the importance of the goal.
Group 2, instead, was asked to write down their goals and reflect on their importance, as group 1 had done.
Group 3 went a little further. Not only were they to write down their goals but they were also asked to write down some actions they could take.
Group 4 went further still, writing their goals down, reflecting on their importance, writing some action steps, but they also sent these action commitments to a supportive friend.
Group 5 did all that group 4 did, but they also made weekly progress reports to their supportive friend.
Well, as you might have guessed, Group 5 achieved the most and Group 1 the least. Group 5, in fact, achieved 78% more than group 1 did.
One of the most important factors emerging from the research was the value in writing our goals down. Writing down our goals better helps us focus on them. Otherwise, we tend to forget about them, especially as we get swept up in the busyness of life. Having your goals on paper means you tend to see them more often, whether it’s a glance at them on your desk, or seeing them stuck to the refrigerator each time you go for some food, or even finding them folded up in your purse or wallet.
Seeing our goals more often helps us focus on them more, so that when opportunities arise that can help us move a step closer, we are more likely to notice them and act on them.
I personally find that action is also important. Whenever I have a goal setting exercise at a workshop, I encourage people to not only write down some actions, but commit to taking at least one of the actions within the next 3 days.
It’s easy to feel pumped up at a seminar, especially if you’re inspired by the teacher or the possibilities you’re now seeing, and you’re also surrounded by like-minded people who are supportive of your hopes and aspirations, but once you go back to your life, your commitment to your goals often wanes and the goal gradually seems unrealistic or improbable. It is safer and easier to stay where you are.
I took a massive action in 1999 after attending a 4-day ‘Unleash the Power Within’ seminar led by Tony Robbins. I resigned from my job the next day back at work, with my vision to be a writer and public speaker. I’d been a scientist and project manager. If I didn’t take the action as quickly after the seminar, if another day or two had passed without me doing anything, I think my courage would likely have dissipated and I would have found several reasons why it really was just a silly idea to leave a very well paid job with great career prospects in pursuit of a pipe dream.
I can tell you now, with the greatest sincerity, that after writing 7 books, some of them bestsellers, and speaking in front of audiences around the world of hundreds and thousands, I am glad I took that action.
Oscar is a Labrador. He came into our lives when he was just an 8-week-old puppy, although Elizabeth and I had visited him regularly since he was 2 weeks old. We instantly fell in love with him and made the 400-mile round-trip drive to visit him almost every week until we were able to bring him home. He is now 19 months old.
Prior to Oscar, I had often heard people refer to a dog as ‘the dog’. I can’t think of Oscar as ‘the dog’. He’s family.
I’ve had this conversation with the parents of some of Oscar’s friends. They’re very much the same. I think it has to do with the depth of bonds we form with animals. I know other people have the same kinds of bonds with cats, horses, and other animals.
Oscar has completely changed my life. We’ve formed a bond of the kind that I never knew existed, only because it’s not something I’ve had the experience of before.
He loves to play. I play with him every day – a lot – and I laugh out loud at his puppy antics. Someone told me that Labradors are still very much puppies until they are 3 years old. I wonder if that also means he will still steal clothes from the clothes horse, logs from the side of the fireplace, and tissues out of the bin, until he’s 3 as well.
He’s also very affectionate. He likes to come up to us and have his head, face, or neck rubbed, and then usually moves into a tummy-tickle position. When we stop, he looks up as if to say, ‘Hey, why are you stopping’. He also has a bit of a habit of sticking his wet nose in my eye socket. I think it’s just one of the ways he shows affection.
He gets nervous from time to time and I feel such empathy for him. Prior to Oscar I never really thought of animals having personalities. I knew they did, and I’d heard people talk about animals in that way, but it’s one of those things you don’t ever think about until you’re in the situation yourself. Oscar’s personality makes him all the more human to me.
I was quite a nervous child. I got nervous going new places, mostly in case I couldn’t get home again. I was also terrified of lifts. I had claustrophobia. I was 18 years old before I got over that fear.
Oscar gets nervous going into new places too. I feel I can relate to him. He also won’t go up a flight of stairs indoors. I think it’s the fear of not being able to get back down, even though he loves running up and down stairs outside. We first saw these kinds of fears when he was a young puppy. When we got him ready for his first walk, it took us about 15 minutes to coax him out of the house with lots of tasty treats because he was so afraid to cross the threshold of the front door and go down the single step to the front path.
He’s still like that now, not with our front door, but at other peoples’ houses. He hesitates and crouches low going over the threshold of houses he’s not been in yet. It took him three attempts on three different days to go into my mum and dad’s house for the first time.
My mum cuts my hair for me. She’s done it since I was a child. One day we brought Oscar to Mum and Dads’ and he wouldn’t enter the house. Elizabeth had to play with him in the back garden while my Mum cut my hair in the kitchen. It just shows part of his personally to us. As humans, we all have our ‘things’ – the fears, and loves, that make us who we are. I can empathise with Oscar, and that, I suppose, makes the connection stronger.
One of the things that causes me to smile every day is when he decides it’s play time. He looks to me as his playmate. I wanted to be the pack leader but I guess dogs choose for themselves who is assigned to which role. He does follow me around though, everywhere. Whenever I get up and move to another room, he gets up and follows me.
He frequently brings a ball or other toy to me. He stares right at me with the item in his mouth and does a little upwards nod as if to say, ‘OK Dad. Come get the ball’. If I don’t look at him, I hear a thud as he drops the toy. It’s like he knows the sound will get my attention. Sometimes, when I’m working on my laptop in the lounge, he jumps up on the sofa and profusely licks my face. Even when I have been busy writing, I can only laugh.
For the whole time Oscar has been with us, I’ve been writing a book about self-love (it’s almost finished now). I sometimes wonder if he was always supposed to come into my life at this time as I’ve grown so much as a person in that arena and a lot of that has been due to Oscar. I feel I’ve learned much more about myself, I’ve gained confidence, which is an important part of self-love, and I’ve stretched myself in new ways.
It’s all these things and many, many more that generate a bond of the kind that I hadn’t imaged before Oscar arrived in our lives. I suspect that, if you have a dog or other animal in your life, that you will be able to relate to this.
I just couldn’t refer to Oscar as ‘the dog’. It feels disrespectful, like he’s second rate or something. He’s family.
I 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.
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‘.
What would happen if you were to eat something unhealthy but believe it was good for you … or something healthy but believe it was bad for you? It seems that what we believe matters more than we think.
Take the large US study that examined the connection between stress and health, for instance. Over the measured time period, there were more deaths among those who were listed as ‘high stress’ than in those listed as ‘low stress’. Fair enough. I think most people would get onboard with that.
But hidden among the numbers lay a surprising and startling statistic. The scientists had taken a note of people’s beliefs about stress as well as how stressed they tended to get. They asked them whether they believed that stress is bad for them or not.
It turned out that what they believed made all the difference. The death rate in the low stress group among those who believed stress was bad for them was actually higher than the death rate in the high stress group among the people who didn’t believe stress was bad for them – a seeming reversal of the whole stress-health thing.
In other words, it’s not the stress so much, but what we believe about the stress that seems to matter even more.
I think that’s really quite astonishing! In fact, even more so: When playing around with the numbers from the study, the scientists concluded that 182,000 people had died in the 8 years of the study from the belief that stress is bad for them. According to Dr Kelly McGonigal, who gave an inspiring TED talk on the subject, that means the 15th leading cause of death in the US in the year the study was conducted was actually the belief that stress is bad for you. Wow! A belief in the top 20 leading causes of death! That’s got to be some kind of a record.
I wonder, with many of the stress-health studies that have shown how stress is bad for us, if there was a strong nocebo effect going on – that’s the opposite of a placebo effect. Where a placebo makes people better, the nocebo effect makes people worse if they believe something is harmful for them. Believing stress is bad for you can act like a nocebo effect when you’re under stress, making the effect of the stress even worse.
What do we do with this kind of knowledge? Do we not bother about practicing stress management techniques? Do we dive into any stressful situation without a care in the world? Do we allow ourselves to get stressed and just say, ‘I’ll be OK’?
I’d caution against just allowing ourselves to get stressed. There is a difference between a thought and a belief. I don’t think getting stressed and saying, ‘I’ll be OK’ will cut it. Chances are you’re saying one thing but believing another.
At risk of swaying your beliefs, if we were to take the mind out of the equation, prolonged and consistent stress is harmful to health, and I think most people believe that. The study is powerful because it shows how the mind can sway the effects. There’s implications for all sorts of things, including self-healing, which I’ve written about in some of my books.
I think a healthier approach would be to moderate our stress levels but also remind ourselves, when we do get stressed, that occasional stress won’t do us any harm. It takes the pressure off.
I wonder how much our beliefs apply to the foods we eat. I started to eat a healthier diet around 12 years ago. Prior to this, I can honestly say that, despite being well educated (degree and PhD) and an amateur athlete at the time, I had almost no nutritional knowledge.
After attending an inspiring talk on nutrition, I made some dramatic changes to my diet. The modifications I made gave me more energy, especially in the afternoon, and a much clearer mind, which is very useful if you’re a writer. I also lost 18 pounds in weight in 7 weeks.
But once I was a healthier eater, I remember being worried about eating anything deemed unhealthy. I went through a phase of unintentionally (and frustratingly) imagining fat going onto my stomach any time I ate some bread, chips or chocolate. My first thought was, ‘This is bad’. But was it as bad as that or was it my belief that was ‘bad’?
My mind obsessed when I ate any of the things I used to eat. In some of my books and workshops I teach how visualization can be used a positive tool to heal the body. I was using it in the opposite way.
Before I became knowledgeable, I didn’t really think of my previous diet as bad for me. In fact, I actually believed that the things I was eating were good for me. I believed they gave me strength and energy. Now I was thinking of those kinds of foods as energy sapping, acid-forming, sugar-laden crap. Were they really all those things?
In the news, we’ve recently learned that butter isn’t the enemy after all. In fact, it’s quite good for us. But I wonder how many people experienced negative effects of butter in their diet because they believed it was bad for them.
How much do our beliefs about foods affect how the foods affect us? If we were to take the mind out of the food equation, chemistry still plays out. I’m a trained chemist. Chemistry happens by itself in test tubes. The thing is, if you put human consciousness in a test tube, it will modify the chemistry to an extent. That’s what the placebo (and nocebo) effect tells us. Some foods enhance our health in the long-term and some are, well, not so good in the long-term, but our beliefs will sway the effect either way.
In a mirror of the stress study, I suspect that eating a healthy diet but believing even the smallest slip-up is bad will have some negative consequences and eating an unhealthy diet but believing it is good for you will have some positive consequences. The question is how much of an effect the mind exerts.
To be honest, I’m not sure how much. Over the years I’ve cultivated what I think is a healthy approach. At least it brings me some peace of mind. I go for a healthy, balanced diet, rich in fruits, greens, and salads, and I eat mostly natural, unprocessed, things. But I also have a belief that occasional ‘treats’ won’t do me any harm. I believe this is a good approach. I know it’s just my belief, but I’m OK with it for now.
So long as I believe in it, I guess it’s doing me some good.