Three ways that kindness impacts the brain and body

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve found myself speaking and writing a lot more about kindness recently. You can catch loads of my videos on my social media pages, plus I share lots in my Personal Development Club monthly live talks and in my free online course, ‘The Biology and Contagiousness of Kindness‘.

One of the things I’ve spoken much about is how kindness produces many beneficial effects in the body, mind, and spirit, some of which is the opposite of what stress does. In many ways, we are helping to counter some of the stress and worry during these times by the kindness and care we show each other. So as a summary, I thought I’d share three of the important healthy consequences of kindness.

1) Kindness supports the immune system

Research shows that kindness (due to how it feels when you’re kind) boosts levels of an important immune system antibody known as ‘secretory immunoglobulin A’ (s-IgA for short). One of the most amazing facts of this research is that the effect is turned on simply by watching kindness. Yes, ‘watching’ kindness. It works because the immune boosting effect is due to how kindness feels, which is the same whether you do kindness or witness kindness. The opposite is in how stress supresses immune function and, similarly, that’s due to how stress feels, whether you experience something stressful or whether you’re feeling stressed from watching negative online content.

So, in addition to being kind, why not reduce your exposure to negative online content, or even reduce how much News you watch! Increase the amount of inspiring content you watch instead. Watch and share videos and clips showing acts of kindness and compassion. Follow social media accounts that lift you.

This isn’t just a psychological feel good. It has immune boosting consequences.

2) Compassion reduces inflammation

Compassion is close to kindness. It’s the feeling that usually motivates a kind act. Amazingly, compassion has anti-inflammatory properties. It rests on the fact that compassion stimulates the vagus nerve, also known as the ‘caretaking nerve’. Since human infants are born technically premature compared with the young of other animal species, human parents have to care for their babies for long periods of time before they are able to fend for themselves. Just as the nervous system has evolved to respond to stress and so protect us in times of danger, over millions of years of evolution, a portion of the human nervous evolved in concert with the caring and compassionate feelings of parents such that, today, we have a portion of the nervous system that responds quickly to compassion. It turns out, that this portion also controls the ‘Inflammatory Reflex’, which helps control inflammation levels in the body.

Modern research confirms that compassion stimulates this portion of the nervous system (the vagus nerve) and also reduces inflammation.

3) Kindness supports mental health

Lots of research shows that kindness increases happiness. Studies that compare people asked to do more kindness versus people acting as normal show that those doing more kindness usually feel happier as a consequence. Other research shows that kindness offers some protection against depression. Studies comparing people who do regular volunteer work with those who don’t show much lower rates of depression in the volunteers.

The happiness-boosting and depression-countering effects seem to have their roots in the neurological effects of how kindness feels, but in addition kindness taps into something deep and spiritual in us.

Brain imaging studies indicate that kind and compassionate feelings cause physical changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, biased to the left-hand side. That’s the portion of the brain behind and above the eyes. This left hand portion is known to be an area associated with positive emotion. With kindness and compassion practice, the area grows much as a muscle grows when we exercise it. The result is that anything that area is used for becomes easier to access, just as anything that a muscle is used for becomes easier if it’s been strengthened through exercise. And so kindness and compassion build this brain region, making positive emotion easier to access.

But kindness can be a spiritual act too. Being kind taps into something deep inside of us, a knowing that what we are doing is the right thing to do. Perhaps that is the real root of why kindness feels good and perhaps, on some deep level, the physical effects on the body are nature’s reward to us for expressing the best in us.

References
All studies mentioned can be found in my two kindness books, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness‘ and ‘The Little Book of Kindness‘.

6 thoughts on “Three ways that kindness impacts the brain and body

  1. Reblogging this to my readers at sister site Poetic Justice

  2. Patricia Williams

    Hi David I believe that the most contagious thing is kindness. I had to apply for special bags for cat litter from Swansea Council normally you have to fill a form in and send it to them, now you have to fill the form on line which is a problem for me. I spoke to a lady told her I had trouble filling it in. She kindly filled it for me. I sent an email to Swansea Council asking them to thank the lady for her kindness. To day I received a message from Swansea Council thanking me. It made me so happy because I was not a happy person today
    Thank you David for your kindeness.

  3. David R. Hamilton PhD

    That’s so lovely, Patricia, both that the lady filled in the form for you and also that you received a thank you message from Swansea Council. Made me smile. 🙂 And thanks for sharing.

  4. Lisa

    I’m curious about how witnessing kindness and compassion can trigger a sudden and deep emotional response, such as crying / sense of overwhelm. I wonder what’s happening there?

  5. David R. Hamilton PhD

    I’m not sure of the answer to that, Lisa, to be honest, as it can be different for different people. For some, for example, it can be related to past experiences, and for others it can be due to perceptions of the meaning of kindness and compassion. I don’t think there’s a single ‘one size fits all’ answer. Sorry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *