As one goes up – the other comes down

brain heart seesaw

image: iStock Photo

Kindness 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 to all studies can be found in, ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness’, by David R Hamilton PhD (February, 2017).

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  1. Therese on March 23, 2017 at 6:22 pm

    Thanks for sharing the study David, and also for sharing your vision of a kinder world. Best wishes!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on March 29, 2017 at 3:15 pm

      Thanks Therese 🙂

  2. Mary Llewellyn on March 26, 2017 at 11:07 am

    Thank you David your words and suggestions are relevant to the whole of our lives <3

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on March 29, 2017 at 3:15 pm

      Thanks Mary 🙂

  3. Echo on May 6, 2017 at 3:20 am

    Dear David,

    I have a question for you that’s not to do with kindness but I’m hoping you’ll be able to answer it anyway. It’s about the mind-body connection/healing. More and more we see articles and headlines about how some body process or part controls our minds. Like in the last few years neurogastroenterology has exploded and we’re now told that the gut and all its cells affects (or in some sensationalist reporting “controls”) our minds and moods. Or how levels of female hormones will affect mood in women. I’m not going to argue for or against these types of findings but my concern is that when one reads something like that one feels extremely disempowered and feels controlled by the body. This is why your work was such a breath of fresh air for me because you are actually arguing that the mind has an impact on the body. My question is: what is your take on these sorts of findings and how do we do to not feel disempowered and still feel that our mind can exert influence on these same processes (e.g. believing that our minds can help bring the gut into balance etc.)?

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on May 12, 2017 at 11:05 am

      Yes, I see headlines like that a lot too. They’re a little bit misleading in using the word, ‘control’. In actual fact, the correct word to use would be ‘influences’. The relationship between the mind and body is ‘Bi-Directional’ – meaning ‘goes both ways’. The mind affects the body and the body affects the mind. It’s easy to feel disempowered when you learn that something ‘controls’ the mind. I find it useful, and recommend to people, that they just keep reading and learning in the area of the mind-body connection as this will help remind them that the mind is always exerting an effect on the body … and remind ourselves also to swap the word ‘controls’ for ‘influences’. I hope that helps. 🙂

  4. Liv on June 14, 2017 at 11:53 am

    Hi David, thanks for sharing these useful insights. Do you know of any researchs that delvs deeper into various types/acts of kindness and the impact on stress levels? Is there for instance a difference between kindness towards someone you know versus a stranger? is there a difference between observing the direct result of your kindness (for instance helping someone who has fallen on the street stand up) versus kindness where you can not observe the immediate effect (donating money to a charity)? And are there any difference for instance between men and women on how being kind affects stress? I am really keen to learn more about the nuances here, as I believe such insights can be tremendously helpful both to my personal and professional life.

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