I have written a lot about side effects of kindness, that when you give you also receive. Sometimes receiving can be in the form of acts of kindness done for you, or of seemingly random blessings showing up in your life, but they also come in the form of physiological effects. I had an experience in Peru several years ago that first pointed me towards considering the physical effects of kindess.
I was having a tidy up recently and found my diary from a trip I made to Peru in 2001 with group of 17 people, led by my friend Stephen Mulhearn, a shamanic teacher. We did a series of spiritual and other meditative practices in sacred sites and in the jungle.
We did a 4-day trek to Machu Picchu, walking through jungle and up through mountainous scenery. It was a beautiful experience.
Several porters were assigned to carry our rucksacks. I remember feeling so sorry for them as each porter had 3 or 4 full rucksacks on their back, and some also had heavy gas canisters strapped to them for cooking our meals.
I felt terrible and insisted on carrying my own, however, the tour guide made it very clear to me that this is the only work some of the men could get and if we carry our own bags then the tour operator will simply hire fewer porters, depriving some of work. I understood his point, but it didn’t make it easier.
I remember one man, who was slight of build with an enormous burden of rucksacks and canisters. I wondered how he could even lift it off the ground. As we walked up steep parts of hills on narrow paths, I could see his legs literally trembling with all the weight.
It was very hot and we were all told to drink copious amounts of water. I realised that the porters had little or no water.
So every time I passed a porter or one passed me, I stopped and offered some of my own water (and food) I did this dozens of times over the following 20 km hike, giving all of my water away, not taking a single drop myself to ensure that I had enough to offer the porters.
When we reached our destination at over 4,000 metres altitude, I’d not taken a drop of water or food all day as I had given it all away. Yet, I felt exhilarated! I didn’t feel dry nor tired. I felt great. Energised, in fact.
It taught me on a practical level that you receive when you give, and that the receiving often comes in a form that you require. Of course, the body requires hydration, but I believe that I received energy that day in other ways, including emotional, that more than served my immediate needs.
Just as feeling stressed produces stress hormones, giving produces ‘kindness hormones’. Yes, there are such things, which I wrote a lot about in my books, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’, ‘The Little Book of Kindness’, and ‘Why Kindness if Good for You’. Kindness hormones are substances produced in the body due to how kindness makes you feel, just as stress hormones are substances produced due to how stress makes you feel.
When we give, it is the feeling of warmth, connection, even love or affection, that generate the kindness hormones. Research even shows that oxytocin (a kindness hormone) helps protect muscles from damage, which may even contribute to the effect of kindness increasing endurance. At the same time, the emotional high (known as ‘Helper’s High’) can produce a psychological state of exhilaration.
Combined, this is why giving to others can make us feel good even when conditions might normally see us feel bad, why we can be energised when circumstances would normally leave us feeling tired, or why we can feel resilience even in the face of testing events.
Indeed, scientists examining the relationship between kindness and stress found that when a person is doing more kindnesses, they tend to experience less stress. It doesn’t mean that stressful events don’t happen during these times, but that kindness seems to take the edge off them; in effect, kindness helps build resilience.
So it is certainly true that that giving leads to receiving in one way or another. However, it’s best we don’t look for what we might receive. Expecting to receive on account of what you are giving can take away the genuine feeling of warmth and connection that kindness produces, thus removing the potential for healthy effects. I call this ‘Nature’s Catch 22’. You only receive when your motivation for giving is genuine.
This is because it is genuine kindness that creates the feelings of warmth, connection, or affection and it is these feelings that produce any physiological or even psychological effects. In a sense, you have to mean it to feel it, so you have to mean it to get the rewards. Which also means you need to not be looking for the rewards. This is why I call it Nature’s Catch 22.
Had I been giving water to the porters as a strategy for boosting my own energy, I would likely have felt dehydrated and drained.
Of course, not all acts of kindness need be genuine. Helping another out of a sense of duty is still helping the person, even if you resent doing it. The downside for yourself is that if you resent it then you might feel stressed, which might not do you good in the long-term. There are times, therefore, when the best act of kindness, at least in terms of preserving your own health, is to say no.
Kindness is sometimes easy. Sometimes it’s not. There is no ‘one size fits all’. We each have our own lives, circumstances, relationships, environments and contexts. Sometimes things are complicated, sometimes they are simple. Kindness for one person might look very different to kindness for another.
All I can say is that if we each do the best we can, then I think we can make life a little easier for ourselves, for others, for our societies, and even for our world.
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