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.

The healing power of nature

Our species, Homo sapiens, branched off from other species around 260,000 years ago and lived their lives in Africa’s tropical savanna, having migrated previously from the lush Makgadikgadi-Okavango wetland, in what is now Botswana. 

Throughout the span of human history, humans have spent 99.99% of our time in natural surroundings and only 0.01% in built up surroundings.

What does this mean? 

It means that the human nervous system is adapted to nature.

Our ancient ancestors lived their lives in a state of relative calm in comparison with the heightened state of stress that many of us live most days with. Gradually, as the wheels of time turned, this state of nervous system calm became associated with the perception of the surroundings.

Today, even seeing nature relaxes the human nervous system. Nature even helps us heal faster.

In a residential rehabilitation hospital in Røros in Norway, 278 coronary and pulmonary patients recovered in rooms that either offered a panoramic view of the valley and mountains, or a view that was blocked by other hospital buildings. Those with the nature view made faster recoveries in both mental and physical health than the patients who had a view of a brick wall. This type of research has led some researchers to declare that not only is nature healing, but being deprived of it is potentially harmful.

There’s even evidence that the amount of nature around us impacts how we handle pain.

In a study led by researchers at Kansas State University, 90 patients who were recovering from an appendectomy were randomised into rooms that either did or didn’t contain plants. The patients who had plants in their rooms required fewer analgesics than those whose rooms had none. They also had lower blood pressure and heart rates and they experienced less anxiety and fatigue.

Some researchers believe that over and above the effect of the evolved association between a calm state and the perception of nature, there is also a fractal component of nature that we recognise, that helps the brain to discern real from fake.

Nature is fractal, oscillatory. For example, the heart beats in and out, we breathe in and out, the Earth spins and gives us night and day. Nature works in cycles and it repeats patterns. As a plant or a tree grows, it reaches a certain point and its rules of growth say, ‘repeat’, and it repeats what it’s just done, offering us another leaf or branch that’s a copy of the one beneath. The result is repeats of leaves on a stem in plants or of branches of trees.

Our brains and nervous systems recognise anything natural because this oscillatory behaviour is inherent to nature. Yet most of us live in blocky buildings. We make straight lines and build blocky rectangles to live and work in because they cost less and are technologically easier to achieve. Some are pleasant to look at, of course, but they don’t do much for our nervous system unless we bring nature into and around them, like plants and flowers, or better still, embed them within natural surroundings. We need nature, for the sake of our mental and physical health.

We used to know this, but it’s been largely forgotten over the past 100 or so years. The first hospitals in Europe were set in monastic communities in which a garden containing grass, plants, flowers, and trees, was considered essential and was believed to support the healing process. Nature was considered restorative.

Now, finally, modern scientists have reached the same conclusion and it is stimulating some health services to make healthy changes within their environments. For example, the NHS Forest Project in the UK aims to increase access to green spaces on NHS-owned land.

What can each of us do in our lives?

Try to get into nature as often as you can, even if it’s just a 5 or 10-minute walk or a seat in the park or small green space within a town or city. Bring flowers and plants into your home. Let your eyes settle for just a few extra seconds on the sights of life – trees, grass, flowers, birds. Take a breath and listen to the sounds of birds tweeting their songs. Stop to smell flowers. Inhale the sights and sounds around you, even if it’s just in a small green space.

And as you do, your nervous system will exhale with a relaxed, restorative, smile on its face.

How to write a book

There’s no correct way to write a book. I’ve been asked dozens of times about how to best write a book. If you ask 10 authors how they do it, you’ll get several different answers.

In terms of planning, some people meticulously plan out the book – chapter by chapter – before they put pen to paper. Then they start with chapter 1. I admire that. I do it a wee bit in that I sketch a rough outline of what I’d like to cover. But personally, when it comes to it, I sort of start in the middle, with the chapter / section I feel most inspired with at that time. 

That way, it’s easy to keep your motivation. I find that if I start with introductory chapters, since they’re not the juicy bits I really want to be writing, my writing is slow, or I just put it off. So I dive right in with the juicy stuff, then write my early chapters later, as a ‘how to get to the juicy stuff’.

I’ll give you an example. My first book was, ‘It’s the Thought that Counts’. It’s composed of 14 chapters. I started with what eventually became chapter 6. It was on research around the scientific evidence for prayer. It was the subject that I felt was most calling to me then. I think if I’d sat down with chapter 1, I’d never have written it. Chapter 1 was actually one of the last chapters I wrote.

And I say this for another reason too. Some people have easy structured time segments to write, but most don’t, especially when it’s a first book. We have to fit it into our lives. If you’re starting with a chapter that inspires you, then you’ll find the time, no matter how busy you are.

I wrote the bulk of my first book between midnight and 3am about 3 nights a week, not because it was the best time for me, but because it was the only time I could find to write, given other commitments I had at the time. I was teaching and tutoring chemistry at a college and university and those commitments were very time consuming. I had also recently begun a new relationship and wanted to invest in that. So midnight to 3am it was! 

I would light a candle, some incense, make some coffee, put soft music on, open my laptop and write. I still have very fond memories of that experience. It was helped by the fact that I was working first on the chapters that really inspired me.

I tried the same thing with my second book, but it didn’t work. The structure of my life was different. I didn’t have the same need to write through the night and kept falling asleep on my computer. It was then I discovered that I actually write better in the mornings (7.30am-12noon) while sitting in coffee shops. I’ve written most of my books in this way since.

Yet, I’m just finishing my 11th book (out in September) and, due to the pandemic, I couldn’t visit coffee shops. I struggled at first to work at home because I’ve so enjoyed the atmosphere (and nice coffee) for years. But I soon adapted, and my new book is my highest quality writing so far. 

I think the common thread for me has been writing about stuff that excites and inspires me, coupled with a desire to communicate my ideas. I can do this regardless of the context.

Anyway, I hope that helps if you’ve ever harboured thoughts about writing a book. There’s no right way. Just your way.

And don’t let a lack of confidence get in your way. I failed my English exam at high school. In my prelim exam, I got 22% for paper 1 and 36% for paper 2! I was firmly at the bottom of the class. I just didn’t get writing. I was into maths and science. The understanding of how to write just didn’t sink in for me at that time.

I taught myself to write in the process of writing. Often in life, that’s the way we learn. Most of what we learn is ‘on the job’. Ask any first time parent. If you read a dozen books on how to write, or go on a dozen courses, you might never begin because you’ll always be looking for that one more extra insight that will help you. Allow yourself to learn from the inside out! 

You don’t need to get it right. You just need to start. Don’t pressure yourself to write at a high standard either. Some people labour over a single sentence or paragraph to get it just right. Again, if you do that, you might get bored and not make much progress.

I just get the words down, even if the style and language needs (a lot of!) editing. But it’s a start. Editing comes later.

Once I’ve got a whole first draft done this way, that’s when I tidy up the writing. I print it out and take a pen, and go through the book, scoring out some sentences and paragraphs, rewriting others in tiny writing in the margin, and circling sections that need to move to other places. I enjoy this bit. It feels like creating a sculpture. 

You’re slowly beginning to reveal the image that’s contained within the granite or marble block.

Then I type in all my corrections and go through the same process again – print, make corrections in pen, type it in, print, make corrections in pen, type it in, print, make corrections in pen, type it in. For my first book, I probably did this about 20 times. No joke! I’d never written before, and my English hadn’t progressed much since High School.

Now I make about 4 iterations like this from first to final draft, but that speed only comes with experience. I say this while on the 4th and final iteration of my new book, of which I have a final deadline in a few days. I just decided to take a half hour out to write this blog since it’s World Book Day.

I hope you find this helpful. Happy World Book Day!

If you’ve ever dreamt of writing a book, make a start today, even if you only write a paragraph that will go somewhere near the middle (or end) of the book.

Oh, and the above image is of my book, ‘I Heart Me: The Science of Self-Love’. To celebrate World Book Day, my publisher have the e-book version on sale for 71p (yes, £0.71) in the UK and 99 cents all around the world where it is available (US, Australia, Canada, Europe, etc) for the whole of March. 🙂

Mind and Weight Loss

I’ve had a few hypnotherapy sessions recently. A friend is training in solution focused hypnotherapy and is using me as one of his test subjects. I’m loving it and already feeling the benefits.

I’m not totally new to hypnotherapy. I first tried it 20 years ago when I was dabbling in amateur athletics. I loved doing the long jump. I bought a hypnotherapy tape by Paul McKenna called, ‘Ultimate Athlete’ and listened to it every day as instructed. The results were amazing. My long jump distance improved by over half a metre in just a few months.

Over the years since, I’ve been keynote speaker at several hypnotherapy conferences, where I’ve focused mostly on teaching how the mind-body connection works.

People sometimes use hypnotherapy to help lose weight. Sometimes, it can simply be a process of changing your relationship with certain foods, or to stave off cravings. One version is where the person is helped to imagine that they’ve had a gastric band fitted. I first came across this several years ago when I was researching for my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, when I read a report of Sam Alderwish, a teaching assistant from Birmingham, who underwent the therapy and then dropped 4 dress sizes.

Some people who have done this have reported that it completely changed their relationship with food. Some swear them stomachs feel tighter even after just a few mouthfuls of dinner. 

Research now shows that visualisation techniques can change our perception of food and how full we feel. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University invited some volunteers to eat sweets or cubes of cheese and others to imagine eating the sweets or cheese. Amazingly, real eating and imaginary eating impacted the brain in the same way. In both cases, appetite was supressed the more you ate or imagined eating. 

The appetite suppression mechanism is why you get full and don’t feel like eating more once you reach a certain threshold. But the team found that the brain couldn’t tell the difference between whether a person was actually eating the sweets or cheese or whether they were imagining eating them. There’s a very fine line between real and imaginary as far as the brain is concerned, and this underpins why some mind-body techniques like visualisation or hypnotherapy can be so powerful.

The Carnegie Mellon study found that you had to visualise really clearly, in that if you would normally chew ten times then you had to visualise chewing ten times. You had to make it as real as possible.

However, this is not a suggestion to visualise eating to reduce your appetite. The researchers didn’t study the effects of what imagining eating can do to things like blood sugar or anything else. They just demonstrated a concept. Plus, we have important nutritional needs, so it’s important to eat the right amounts and balance of foods. As far as research goes, a plant-based diet seems like the way to go nowadays. Similarly, I’m not recommending getting a ‘virtual’ gastric band. I just like to share studies like these because it shows how powerful the mind can be.

The idea that the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary has far reaching consequences. It’s helped athletes improve their performances, it’s helped stroke patients recover faster, and it’s even helped people to feel happie

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?

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/)

You are made of stardust

subatomic particles in atom smasherEvery atom in your body was made in a star!

That means those that make your heart, brain cells, skin, hair, teeth, bones, even the air you breathe, plus those that compose the trees, dogs and cats, rabbits and horses, lions, tigers, and bears, Oh my!; plus the insects, birds, fish, roads, buildings, and cars. The basic components of everything within you and around you were made in a star and you are deeply connected to all of it. Your body is the remnants of a star after it took its last breath.

Stars begin their lives as invisible clouds of mostly hydrogen. The atoms of hydrogen are gradually pulled together under gravity and squashed together to form helium, the stuff that makes balloons go upwards and that makes your voice squeaky. This is nuclear fusion. It releases vast amounts of energy; so much, in fact, that the star essentially ignites, like a large cosmic match being lit.

But while it burns, more and more atoms are squashed together, eventually forming heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, and iron, and even larger stars produce gold, silver and platinum.

And just as a log fire goes out when it uses up its fuel, so stars do the same. They burn for usually millions or billions of years, and when all of their fuel is expended many of them blow up (a supernova) and the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, iron, gold, silver, platinum, and all the other elements are blasted into space as stardust.

Eventually gravity draws this stardust together to form planets like the Earth. Everything on Earth, from rocks, stones, water, crystals, to all living things like people, animals, insects, birds, fish, grass, trees and flowers, is made of this stardust. Every atom of your DNA is stardust. Every atom in your skin, blood, and bones is stardust. Every atom of the oxygen you breathe is stardust.

You are an intimate part of the whole universe. You are made of stars. The universe gave birth to you and you contain its essence within yourself. You might say that you are a form that the universe is currently taking.

And you are deeply connected with the whole universe in another way. The phenomenon known as entanglement shows that when two particles or fields interact, they remain connected no matter how far apart they are. This is also true of particles and fields that were created at the same time. Cosmologists believe that all particles and fields were created about 14 billion years ago in the big bang and thus all particles and fields are connected today.

That is, although it doesn’t look like it or feel like it, you are connected to – entangled with – the entire universe.

In the deepest way, you are connected to a leaf on a tree, a stone in a garden, a raindrop, other people – your loved ones, friends, colleagues, and even your enemies – to animals, plants, insects, birds and fish, to a crystal of ice on one of Saturn’s rings, and even to a piece of dust on the surface of a planet in a galaxy far, far away.

Anyway, just something light to ponder. 🙂

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.

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