You only win if you’re not trying to win

This apparent paradox is inherent to life. It’s built into the side effects of kindness. You only gain (in terms of mental and physical health) if you’re not trying to gain. It’s an example of a catch-22.

Catch-22 is a satirical war novel set in the second world war and written by Joseph Heller. He loves paradoxes and circular reasoning and they pervade the book. An example of a catch-22 is where the only means of escape from something is blocked by a contradictory rule, so there is not actual means of escape. 

In the book, if a pilot wants to get out of flying he must be deemed insane, but to be deemed insane he needs to get evaluated, but to get evaluated proves that he’s sane, and so he can’t get out of flying. And thus, no war pilot can get out of flying.

A popular example in everyday culture is where the only way to qualify for a loan from a bank is to prove that you don’t need the loan, but if you don’t need a loan then there’s no need to go to the bank for one. Another is that you need experience to get a job but you can’t get a job without experience. Or you’ve misplaced your glasses, but in order to see well enough to find them, you need your glasses. I once tried to change my address with my bank after moving house, but the bank insisted on sending the change of address forms to my old address, which meant I couldn’t change my address because I didn’t live there any more.

Life is full of these kinds of contradictions, but not just negative ones like the above ones, where no matter which way you try to go you always end up back at square one. Life has positive ones too. A very important one relates to kindness. I call it Nature’s Catch 22.

Kindness has healthy side effects, which I wrote about in my books, The Five Side Effects of Kindness, and The Little Book of Kindness. In a nutshell, kindness benefits mental and physical health. It leads to healthy brain changes, especially if the kindness is consistent, and it also impacts the heart, immune system and even ageing.

Crucially, all of these effects are due to how kindness feels. The nice feeling you get when you help someone produces ‘kindness hormones’ (akin to stress hormones, but opposite in their effects), and these impact on the brain, blood vessels, immune cells, and many other systems of the body.

But the catch-22 is this. You have to mean it to feel it. If you genuinely mean an act of kindness then, in that moment, you’re not looking to gain from it, and as a consequence you do gain from it because the feeling you get from your genuine act of kindness will benefit your mental and physical health.

On the contrary, if you don’t genuinely mean the kindness you do, if you’re doing it because you want to gain from it, then you won’t feel it, and if you don’t feel it then you won’t get any beneficial side effects and so you don’t gain anything.

In other words, the only way to get the side effects of kindness is if you’re not trying to get the side effects. Nature’s catch-22.

There’s other examples of nature’s catch-22s, like:

-You won’t find peace by trying to find peace, but only by accepting the noise in your life.

-You often get to where you want to get to when you stop trying and accept where you are.

and,

-when you stop trying to change yourself and accept yourself as you are, you tend to spontaneously change by gaining greater self esteem.

Maybe nature’s catch-22 is a general principle in life. These seeming conundrums are maybe nature’s way of guiding us towards behaviours that make life better for everyone, where everyone wins. 

Maybe nature is trying to tell each of us that you win in life not by trying to win, but by being a good person.

3 ways to practice Kindfulness

I’ve talked a lot about benefits of kindness in other articles. For example, I’ve talked about the impact of kindness on mental health, through how kindness feels as well as how it induces changes in brain regions, plus how kindness impacts the heart, immune system, and even aspects of the ageing process. I’ve even described how kindness is highly contagious.

Outside of the physical act of kindness, we obtain many of the above ‘side effects’ when we do kindness in our minds. I call this, ‘kindfulness’. It’s like mindfulness, but where instead of being mindful of your breath, you be mindful of good things about people.

Here’s three simple kindfulness practices:

1) Loving Kindness (metta).

This is a Tibetan Buddhist practice. The idea is to think and feel compassion and kindness towards yourself and others. It’s built around a few key phrases:

May you be happy

May you be well

May you be safe

May you be at peace

There are quite a few variations, like swapping on of the above for, ‘may you be free of suffering’, or ‘may you be at ease’, ‘or may you be healthy’, or even, ‘may your hopes and dreams be fulfilled’. Or you can even personalise it for someone in particular with something like, ‘may you get that promotion’, or ‘may you come to realise how beautiful you are’. Whatever the words, the sentiment is always the same – rooted in kindness and compassion.

The practise usually starts with yourself, so ‘May I be ….’ Etc.

Typically, it’s three times for yourself, then three times for each of a number of people – from loved ones, friends, neutral people, even people you have challenges with. And many who practice it like to end it by swapping, ‘you’ for ‘all sentient beings’, so, ‘May all sentient beings be happy… etc’.

2) Send a ball of light.

This is a practice I created when I first set out to create a range of kindfulness practices (there are many – I’ve just listed 3 in this article to keep it short).

Think of someone you care about. I can even be someone who is no longer on Earth.

Imagine a ball of coloured light emanating from the area of your heart, and let its colour represent your feelings for the person.

Imagine throwing the ball through space and let it arrive with the person, wherever they are.

Imagine the light being absorbed into the area of their heart. Imagine it being wilfully accepted.

Now imagine you are with the person and either recall and indulge in a memory of a time well spent with the person – recalling the place, time, the experience you had, what was said and done – or if you prefer, imagine saying something to the person that you wish to say, and let it be coloured with gratitude, compassion and kindness.

Do this for a few minutes. Then thank the person for being in your life and imagine returning to your starting place, and to your breath. 

Now do the same thing for two more people, one at a time. Let the colour of the ball of light represent what you feel for each person.

After the third person, return your attention to your breath and to the area of your heart.

3) What I appreciate

This is a quick and simple practice where you focus on a different person each day.

On the first day, choose someone in your life. It can be a loved one, a friend, colleague, neighbour, a delivery person, someone seemingly random that you are aware of, even someone you’ve had challenges with. It can be anyone.

Now, make a mental list (or you can write it down in a journal if you prefer) of everything that you appreciate about the person. For example, you might think of things the person has said or done, or you might appreciate their nature, the kind or person they are. You might even include how they dress, how they do their hair. It could be the way they talk. It can be anything that YOU appreciate. Your list might not be the same as someone else’s list, but this is an exercise for you, in building your appreciation.

See how many days you can do, while focusing on a different person each day. You might just surprise yourself how many days this daily practice can run to. Do you think you could go a month? 3 months? 6 months? A year?

Channel Kindness

What does channel kindness mean to you? There’s a few ways you can think of it, I suppose. You can be a channel for kindness. That is, whatever you say, say it with kindness and whatever you do, do it with kindness. In other words, let kindness be like a gentle wind that helps nudge your course as you go through life.

That’s mostly how I think of it.

Channelling kindness is good for mental health. Lots of research shows that it boosts happiness and can even protect against depression. It can also neutralise fear. Kindness is the opposite of stress in terms of how it feels and the physiological effects of it. But it can be an antidote to fear. Have you ever noticed that in the moment of an experience of love or deep compassion, that you don’t feel fear? It’s why parents can sometimes do extraordinary acts to protect their children, moving past things and people that would ordinarily scare them. Kindness has similar effects.

There’s a biological basis for it. Kindness creates the kindness hormone, which also happens to be the love hormone, oxytocin. It’s produced because of how kindness feels. One of the things the kindness hormone does is that it turns down activity in the fear centres of the brain, like the way you can reduce the light by turning down a dimmer switch. With the feelings that accompany the experience of kindness, the kindness hormone flows into fear centres of the brain and simply reduces activity there.

Channelling kindness also means to be kind to yourself as well, channelling it for the sake of your own wellbeing. Not instead of others, of course, but as well as others. Most of us miss the ‘as well as’ part. We give so freely of ourselves at times, but often forget that we need topping up too. Like a phone that’s run out of battery and can no longer function, we’re a bit like that. Too much doing and giving can leave us low in energy, which can degrade our mental health and affect the quality of our day to day life.

And so even though being kind to others is good for our mental health, too much can be detrimental. This can be seen from a study that examined the quantity of time people spent volunteering. At low levels, once or twice a week for a short time, volunteering had a positive effect on mental health, but once a person got to around the 16-20 hours a week (approximately – it varies from person to person so this was an average) of giving their time freely, there were no longer health gains, but overall the effect became negative. Why was this?

There’s a few reasons. One is that beyond this threshold, it didn’t feel so much as giving their time to help others, but began to feel like a job and something that was expected of them. I have experience of this. Some friends and I founded a charity about 20 years ago. What began as a heartfelt mission to help others, eventually became stressful as the number of hours we volunteered exceeded normal full-time hours. With those demands of time, I personally sometimes lost the sense of purpose that initially fuelled me as the needs of the job became all consuming.

Another reason is that many had other full time jobs that earned them their wage, so they were trying to squeeze time to volunteer into an already busy schedule, such that volunteering a large number of hours became physically and mentally tiring. 

Another reason, one that is relevant to those who have to care for people due to health situations, is that it can be stressful – the concern for your loved one and fear for their situation, plus the emotional demands of caring while also maintaining a household.

The moral of the story is that always be kind when and where you can, but if you notice that it is taking a toll on you, then step back and do what you need to do to recharge your physical and emotional batteries. Plug yourself into a charger, so to speak. Take some time in nature, if you can. The human nervous system is adapted to green spaces so trees, grass, and flowers, have a calming effect. Or treat yourself to something nice or by doing something you enjoy or that matters to you.

So channel kindness towards others and also channel it towards yourself.

Channel Kindness is also the title of a new book by Lady Gaga and young reporters from the digital arm of her charity, Born This Way Foundation, a charity all about helping young people be kind, create more kindness, and that supports their mental health. The digital arm is called, ‘Channel Kindness’, as in ‘Channel 1’ or ‘Channel 2’, but also as a suggestion that we try to channel kindness in our lives.

I told Lady Gaga’s team I’d mention the book. It’s packed with inspiring stories of kindness and community from young people. It’s a really heartwarming and inspiring read. I’ve done some work with Born This Way Foundation. I met with Cynthia, Lady Gaga’s Mum, who co-founded Born This Way Foundation with her daughter, and we went with some of the team to a high school in Long Island that they were involved with. The kids had bought Christmas presents for the children of women staying in a local temporary homeless shelter. Over the following week, they would discuss the impact of their kindness, write about it, and learn how and why kindness is important in the world and the difference it can make in the lives of others.

I said I’d tell people about the book because I truly love the work they are doing with young people around kindness and mental health.

For me, kindness is the ingredient we need to use more in the world right now. It’s why I write and speak about it so much. Just like you might sprinkle some herbs over a meal, channel kindness and sprinkle some of it everywhere you go. 

Counting Kindnesses

There’s a lot to be said about noticing what you do. Many of us go about our days largely unconscious, in that while we do the things we do, we’re not so present as we do them.

Meditation helps us bring awareness to what we do and also to how we think. Meditation, for example, teaches us to start by noticing the breath, but then to notice that we are breathing. It’s a subtle shift but an important one. It shifts awareness to a deeper state. Rather than being the ‘doer’ of breathing, you become the ‘watcher’ of breathing. With practice, meditation helps us to notice all of our perceptions and experiences as appearances in our consciousness. In so doing, we become less unconscious and more consciously present in our lives.

Awareness is a powerful thing. Awareness of anything illuminates it. Even awareness of psychological pain can illuminate it and help to dissipate it as we find a deeper state that is not experiencing the pain, but aware that it is happening. This is not to trivialise our pains. It usually takes a great deal of awareness practice to be able to transcend much of our suffering in such a way. But there is hope to be found in awareness practices.

What about awareness of kindness?

Some research has shown that noticing that you are being kind helps to deepen some of the benefits of it. One of the ‘side effects’ of kindness, as I call them (see, The Five Side Effects of Kindness), is that it makes us happier. It leads to overall improvements in mental health and can even build resilience towards some of the stresses and strains of our lives.

In one study, scientists invited over a hundred women to notice their kindnesses; that is, to keep an approximate daily record of when they say or do something kind. The object was not to go out and intentionally do kind acts, as can be the purpose of other kindness studies, but to simply notice that you are being kind, ultimately to illuminate your intentions, words, and actions in your own consciousness.

Well, after a week of doing this, all of the women were happier than they were at the start of the study and around a third of them had experienced significantly large gains in their happiness.

One of the things this kind of awareness does is it helps us to rewrite the stories we have about ourselves. Many of us focus so much on our faults, our misgivings, our failures, our struggles, times when we did not live up to our own expectations. Many of us feel that we wear a mask as we go about our lives, but that people don’t know what’s underneath it. Sometimes we hold good ideas about ourselves underneath, but a great many people hold negative ideas about themselves underneath, whether it’s about their appearance, personality, or who they believe themselves to be. We hide our self esteem under our masks.

The study essentially illuminated an aspect of these women that many of us tend to forget, that we’re much nicer, kinder people than we realise. Most of us do so many kind things, in the polite things we often say, in saying thank you, letting someone go in front of us in traffic, holding a door, smiling, engaging in friendly conversation with a neighbour or colleague, that we don’t even realise that these are all examples of kindness, and that they say a lot about who we are as individuals.

Many of us frequently reach out to a friend or family member who needs helps, support, or just a friendly ear. Many of us do numerous intentional acts of kindness. All of these things, we tend to give less focus to because they’re habits. But they are beautiful habits. 

And when we illuminate them, it brings who we are, this kind person, to the forefront of our consciousness. For some people in particular, the third of the women in the study who felt the biggest gains, they rewrote their personal story so much that it ultimately gave birth to greater self esteem than they had before.

So try to bring awareness to your kindnesses. Just notice that the things that you do, even the tiniest things (or tiny as they seem to you, but they may be significant to the other person(s)), say a lot about the good quality person you are!

Reference
K. Otake, et al., ‘Happy people become happier through kindness: a counting kindness intervention’, Journal of Happiness Studies 7 (3), 2006, 361–75 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1820947/)

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‘.

The most contagious thing is kindness

We’re all thinking of contagion right now due to the coronavirus. Let’s not forget that kindness is also highly contagious.

Scientists at Harvard and Yale measured the contagiousness of kindness out to three social steps. That is, when you be kind to someone, that person will be kind or kinder to someone else (1 social step from you), because of how you made the person feel, and the recipient of that kindness will be kind or kinder to someone else (2 social steps from you), and the recipient of that kindness will be kind or kinder to someone else (3 social steps from you).

In practice, kindness is ‘circularly contagious’, like the way a wave travels outwards in a circle when you drop a pebble in water.

What actually happens is that the person you are kind to ends up being kind or kinder to about 5 people (the number varies but this is an average) over the course of the next 24 hours (1 social step), and each of those 5 people are kind or kinder to 5 people over the next 24 hours (2 social steps), and each of those 5 are kind or kinder to 5 people (3 social steps).

That’s 5 x 5 x 5 = 125 people benefitting from a single act of kindness. Each time you are kind, you really are impacting far more people than just the person you help! I’m saying this because many of us wonder if our actions are insignificant. They’re are! Kindness matters greatly and you make a difference even with the smallest of acts.

In these strangest of times, we’re being encouraged to keep our physical distance, but let’s reduce our emotional distance. Pick up the phone, send a text, use Facetime, WhatsApp or Skype. Be there for family, friends, co-workers, neighbours, others in your community, if you can.

One thing I’ve learned over the years of trying to be a little kinder is that what might seem like a small act for you might mean the world to the person you help.

Other things are contagious too. Emotions are contagious. You can actually infect someone with a good mood (or even happiness) down a phone line. One of my friends phoned me a few days ago just to tell me a joke. I was chuckling to myself for hours afterwards. But even just being upbeat on the phone can activate the mirror neuron system (MNS) of the person’s brain. If you’re using the phone then it’s the auditory component of the MNS or if you’re using video, then it’s both the auditory and visual components. Either way, your upbeat tone specifically activates their brain regions for positive emotion and improves their mood. In a very real and scientific way, your mood is contagious! It’s known as mood contagion or emotional contagion.

Healthy lifestyle is also contagious and it works through what’s called social contagion, where we are inspired to take up certain behaviours of others. In these times, one of the best ways to support your immune system is to eat a healthy diet containing fruit, vegetables, fibre, nuts and seeds. Try to incorporate over 30 different plant ingredients a week (try counting them) to optimally support your gut microbiome, which supports your immune system. This is according to Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at Kings College in London, and author of, ‘The Diet Myth’. If you have a handful of nuts, for example, containing peanuts, cashews, Brazil nuts and hazelnuts, then that counts as 4. If you dip bread in olive oil then that’s two (the bread grain plus the olive oil, coming from olives).

So if you eat well, you can not only help support your immune system but also that of some of your family and friends who might follow suit due to social contagion, especially if you communicate how healthy it is, and even do so in an upbeat way. Ultimately, if you do this partly to help them, then you’re also practicing kindness.

So while we increase our physical distance to help reduce the likelihood of contagion of coronavirus, let us increase the contagion of kindness instead.

 

 

As you give, so you receive

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.

—-

Do you wish to join my Personal Development Club? Click on the image below.

Kindness is more than the things that we do

I was asked what kindness is during an interview a few weeks ago. It’s something I’m rarely asked as most of us assume we know what kindness is.

So I’ve turned it around and since asked a few groups what they think kindness is. The answer I receive the most is about doing helpful things for people, like acts of kindness.

That is absolutely a huge part of what kindness is, but I think we should also remember that there is much more to kindness than this. Kindness is also in how we think about people, whether we judge people in our minds, or the conversations we have with people in our minds that might not be so kind sometimes.

Of course, we need to vent and process issues. It’s not helpful to just pretend that everything is great. Doing so can just bury emotions.

However, I’ve found that if we have a willingness, just a willingness, to allow kindness to colour part of our thinking, it actually helps us to find softer, kinder, even more peaceful thoughts. It widens our perspective, and in so doing it allows us to see issues, and what might have been annoying us, from a wider, deeper, or clearer perspective. It helps us to heal, at times.

A good way to do this is to say, “Is it possible for me to find a kinder thought here? If so, what might it be?”

It doesn’t always work, and we’re all in different places in our lives, with different circumstances and different issues, but it can help … and more often than you might think.

As I said, it’s not about thinking kind for the sake of it. It’s simply about allowing kindness to be part of how we heal, allowing kindness to be like a fine rain that washes away dirt, to reveal what is underneath.

And what I’ve found to lie underneath is a sense of warmth and connection. Many people have asked me about the ‘best’ spiritual practice and often it is because people are seeking peace, freedom from their suffering, or enlightenment in some form.

Honestly, to think kindly is what I would say. It helps you find that warm, connected, non judgmental and expansive space. From here, peace is much easier to find.❤️🦋😊

Loving kindness slows ageing at the genetic level

I’ve written a lot about the links between kindness and ageing, and part of my focus has been that kindness is the opposite of stress, at least in terms of how it makes us feel and the physiological consequences of those feelings.

Just as feelings of stress produce stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenalin), so feelings associated with kindness produce kindness hormones (like oxytocin, aka, the love drug, the cuddle chemical).

As a result, while stress increases blood pressure, kindness reduces blood pressure. This is fairly obvious, and I’ve written about it in blogs as well as in two of my books, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’ and ‘The Little Book of Kindness’.

But exciting new research has taken things further. In a 12-week randomised controlled trial led by scientists at the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers measured the length of ‘telomeres’ before and after 6 weeks of daily meditation practice.

Telomeres are considered to be markers of ageing because they gradually reduce in length throughout our lives. Their length, and the rate at which their length reduces, not only gives a highly accurate indication of someone’s age but also how fast they are ageing.

They are end caps on DNA. A bit like the plastic ends on shoelaces that stop the shoelaces unravelling and thus ensure that you can thread the laces through the lace loopholes, telomeres help prevent DNA from totally unravelling. In so doing, they prolong the life of cells.

For the study, scientists compared the length of telomeres in people who practiced either, a) the ‘Loving Kindness Meditation’ (a Buddhist practice), where we think and feel kindness and compassion for ourselves and others, b) mindfulness meditation, or c) who did no meditation at all, to serve as a comparison. Blood samples were taken two weeks before and three weeks after the meditation practice.

Incredibly, while telomere length reduced in the mindfulness meditation group and in the control group (typical of 6 weeks of ageing), it did not reduce in the Loving Kindness group. The researchers wrote that, “… with participants in the LKM [Loving Kindness Meditation] group, on average, showing no significant telomere shortening over time.”

In other words, feelings of kindness and compassion seem to slow ageing at the genetic level. This offers further evidence that kindness brings about effects that are physiologically opposite to stress, because stress is one of the ways that telomere loss speeds up.

It is also worth noting that mindfulness meditation did also reduce the rate of loss of telomere length in comparison with the control group over the 6-week period, but only a little. We might expect this because mindfulness meditation is known to reduce stress, but the effect was not nearly so strong as it was for the loving kindness meditation. It is likely that longer term practice of mindfulness slows the rate of ageing, which is consistent with other research.

However, the effects of feelings of warmth, kindness and social connection, which we are encouraged to feel in practice of the loving kindness meditation (also known as metta bhavana), seem to produce much more powerful effects on ageing.

Exactly how it works is not fully understood, but it may involve oxytocin (the kindness hormone) and also the vagus nerve, which has been shown in research to increase in activity (vagal tone) due to practice of the loving kindness meditation.

Oxytocin has been shown to reduce stress and inflammation in immune cells, and thus prolong their health, and the vagus nerve controls the rest, relax and regenerate mode in the body, as well as the inflammatory reflex. Through the latter, increases in vagal tone have been shown to reduce inflammation. This has been cited as an explanation for the increased comparative health of stage 4 cancer patients with high vagal tone compared to those with low vagal tone (see article).

But regardless of how it works, the fact is that it does work. Kindness and compassion really do have powerful biological effects, and they might just have a significant effect on how long you live and how healthy you are.


Have you heard of my new Personal Development Club?

 

If you ever feel like you don’t make a difference

Kindness is highly contagious. It’s more contagious, in fact, than the cold.

The contagiousness of kindness is powered by what’s known as ‘elevation’, a description coined by social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt. It’s a sense of warmth, satisfaction, expansion, even gratitude. It’s the feeling we feel when we do something kind, but also when we receive kindness or even witness it.

Research by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, using a business game as a model, showed that kindness is contagious to at least 3 degrees of separation.

This means that when you do something kind for someone, they will likely be kind (or kinder) to someone else (1 degree), and the recipient of that kindness at 1 degree will be kind or kinder to someone else (2 degrees), and the recipient at 2 degrees will be kind or kinder to someone else (3 degrees).

In real life, it’s much more interesting. When you are kind to someone, given the average degree of interaction we have in a typical day, that person is likely to be kind (or kinder) to around 5 people over the rest of the day, on account of how you made she or he feel. That’s 5 people at 1 degree of separation from you. Think about it. When someone last showed you kindness, didn’t you find yourself being a little kinder to others afterwards, whether in your attitude, words, or actions?

But each of those 5 people will likely be kind (or kinder) to 5 further people, which means 25 people impacted at 2 degrees of separation from you. Now, each of those 25 are also likely to be kind or kinder to 5 further people each, so that’s 125 people at 3 degrees of separation from you. Of course, the numbers aren’t exact; sometimes a person will be kind to more than 5, sometimes less, sometimes it’s more than 5 in a single act. I’ve estimated that it just averages out at about 5 per person. This is illustrated in the image above.

In case you ever wondered how much of an impact you have, let me suggest that you’re changing the world every day. Every day!

Your acts of kindness sends out ripples that impact people at 2 and 3 degrees away from you, people you won’t even meet in your life, yet whose days are a little lighter simply because of something you might have said or did for another person. You are far more important in this world than you think you are.