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.



20 ways to self love

Do you feel you need to work on your self love? Here’s 20 simple and powerful practices that can help you develop a healthy sense of self love.

1) Strike a power pose

Your body language not only shows how youre feeling in any moment, research shows that it also creates how you feel. Its circular! So make regular adjustments to your body language throughout the day so that your body is saying, Ive got this! or even, I have an inner sense of worthiness and value. Making this a daily practice will soon train your muscles and your nervous system for self love.

2) Visualise your best self

In many ways, your brain doesnt distinguish real from imaginary. If you imagine yourself in your best light your brain will process it as real and cause changes in your self-belief and confidence. So visualise yourself in a variety of situations, acting as your best self would act, and seeing the results you want. The key is to do this often. Its the repetition that wires the brain.

3) Use Positive self-talk

Negative self-talk can bring us down and eat away at our self love. So catch yourself as often as you can in the act of negative self-talk and say something positive about yourself instead. It might be regarding your appearance or something about your nature, or it might even be a reminder of something good you once did. It’s a good idea to create a stock of positive things to draw upon, which makes it much easier to change a negative into a positive.

4) Shrink it down

The mind responds to internal images and these images can affect how we feel about ourselves. When we feel afraid or something seems too challenging for us, it seems bigin our minds. It’s like the thought or feeling is ‘in your face’. Negative feelings like this can erode self love. A simple trick, and it does trick the mind, is to take the image or feeling and imagine shrinking it down to almost nothing. It even helps to take your thumb and forefinger and slowly join them together as if making something smaller.

5) Love thy selfie

Say, I love youor I am enoughevery time you see your reflection in a mirror. Say it when you brush your teeth, do your makeup, dry your hair, and even when you catch your reflection in a shop window.

6) Choose gratitude

One of the practices that erodes our self love is when we focus predominantly on our faults or what weve done wrong. A practice of gratitude has the opposite effect, lifting us up instead of pulling us down. Start a gratitude practice that focuses on your good points. Start with 2 or 3 things on day 1 and then add 2 or 3 new things every day until youve practiced for at least 3 weeks and your list has several items on it.

7) Repetition! Repetition! Repetition!

Whatever your self love practice, practice it every day. Repetition is how to wire brain networks for self love. This is how to learn the habit of self love.

8) Celebrate your uniqueness

Dont try to be like everyone else. Conforming sends a signal that says, who I am is not enough so Im trying to be like someone else instead. Make a choice to celebrate whats unique and special about you. Let the world see your uniqueness and individuality and learn to be proud of it.

9) Be authentic

Be your Self. Live your own life. Dont be concerned about being liked or accepted. Be concerned with being yourself. Being authentic is a massive statement of self-love. It’s like declaring that “I am enough just as I am.” Speak your mind, and do it with compassion where you can.

10) Be kind to yourself

Treat yourself in ways that show that you matter. Take some time out, have a hot bath, take a walk in the park, treat yourself to something new that makes you feel good and declare that you are doing it because youre worth it.

11) Dont be afraid to show weakness or vulnerability

Be courageous enough to show your weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Let yourself be seen. If you want people to like you, then let them see You! Everyone feels weak and vulnerable at times so the courage to not hide is a strength. And in having that courage, you inspire others to let themselves be seen too.

12) Be compassionate to yourself

Give yourself a hug a few times throughout the day. Remember that nobody is perfect. You cant succeed or win all the time. You cant even be happy all the time. We are all human, with our humanness showing as we stumble and fumble through life, trying to find our way. Everyone has worries and problems, even if they appear outwardly confident and self-assured. Remember that you are only human.

13) Dont compare your behind the sceneswith everyone elses highlight reel

We mostly see people at their best, or at least what we think is their best, but were all too aware of what we look like first thing in the morning, or how scared or vulnerable we feel at certain times, or how much we might lack confidence on the inside. As Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church, says, we shouldn’t compare our ‘behind the scenes’ with everyone’s else’s ‘highlight reel’. Everyone has stuff going on.

14) Tend to your wants and needs

Learn to look after your own needs. Many of us get into the habit of looking out for everyone but ourselves. A mark of self love is to care for your own needs too. You can do both! Self love doesnt say to love yourself instead of others, before others, or even after others. In fact, it doesnt say anything about others at all. It simply says, love yourself and you can do that while you go about your business of living our life, being kind to, and loving others.

15) Have courage to ask that your needs be met

We all have needs that have to be met, whether these are at work, in our relationships, or in life in general. When we are lacking a healthy self love we become fearful of asking that our needs be met. Practice having the courage to ask. It might mean risking rejection sometimes, but its better knowing that you had the courage to ask than living in fear of rejection. Who knows what might happen

16) Design some self love affirmations

You dont always have to repeat, “I love myself. I love myself. I love myself!” hundreds of times. Design an affirmation that fits where you are in your life right now and how you want to feel. You can even design one thats a stepping stone to where you want to get to.

17) Pull silly smiles

Practice pulling huge silly smiles at random times in the day. Make sure you also do it in the morning, preferably shortly after you get up and also late at night before you go to sleep. Smiling like this sends signals to the emotional centres of your brain and increases positive emotion, especially because youre doing it on purpose.

18) Push out your comfort zone

Self love often lies at the edge of your comfort zone. Push yourself as much as you can with the intent not only to succeed in what you apply yourself to, but in the knowing that the attempt itself is a declaration of self love.

19) Dont take it personally.

Try not to take things too personally, especially seeming criticism or when things dont go to plan. Things only seem personal when were lacking in self love. When things are not working, it’s not a flaw in who you are. Set an intent to be more resilient and your self love will grow as a consequence.

20) Act As If.

Just for today, act as if you had a healthy self love. In varying situations and interactions throughout the day, ask yourself, “How would I be or what would I do right now if I had a healthy self love?” Then do it! If it works out today, try it again tomorrow.

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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Trust that what happens is for the best

I broke my wee toe about three weeks ago. I have such a dangerous job – I was preparing to give a talk, walking around my office speaking aloud as I refined how I was going to describe one particular topic, and I hit my toe on the radiator.

I’ve been surprised since then just how much we use our little toe. At first, I thought it would be fine in a week or so. I mean, it’s only my wee toe; the smallest one, out there on the outside. But I found it surprisingly difficult to stand with my foot flat, which actually made walking quite a challenge. It’s much better now, but much of that is due to one day in particular.

It was a week and a half ago, and I hadn’t been able to wear shoes for the previous 10 days since it happened, only trainers. But I had a corporate presentation to deliver in London so I thought I should look my best for it.

I had to catch an early morning flight, so walking from the drop off area at the airport to the terminal building was the furthest I had walked until then, but as the day went on, a series of unusual events left me surrendering and trusting in the way things are meant to be. Let me explain.

So I flew into London City airport. Every time I’ve flown into City, the aircraft parks in its usual stand and it’s barely a handful of steps until we’re inside the main terminal building. This time, we had to park at the opposite end of the airport, get a bus, then walk what felt about a half mile from there, to inside and through the airport. It’s by far the furthest I’d ever walked at City airport.

I took the underground as the venue was less than 100 metres from Marylebone tube station. But due to a line fault or building works or something (it wasn’t entirely clear), I had to get off at one station and walk to another, which eventually turned out to be between half and one mile and took me about 15 minutes. Finally at the venue the day went well and my talk was very well received.

I considered getting a taxi to my hotel, but decided on the tube again, however, due to a broken down carriage, I had to get off and change at Paddington station. The tube let us all off at a section of Paddington I didn’t even know existed, way out back, beside a river. At this point, I decided that there was no way I was going to walk all the distance into the main station and get another tube. I was taking an Uber.

I walked to the nearest road, a couple of hundred metres, but due to extensive building and demolishing work, the whole road was closed to all but buses, which meant I had to walk to the next road. That turned out to be closed too. By the time I actually got onto a road that cars could drive on, I’d walked around two thirds of a mile (according to Apple Maps).

Now, I consider myself a really positive person, but with my broken toe, this was testing me just a bit. I don’t think I’d ever walked so far in any one day on a trip to London. I remember thinking, what are the chances that all these travel mishaps forcing me to walk everywhere would happen on the day I have a broken toe and have to wear shoes for the first time? I could easily have slipped into feeling sorry for myself, or complaining, or some other kind of negative feeling. I burst out laughing instead.

This is how things needed to go. I was being directed. I knew that the odds of all this happening on the day I had a broken toe were just too outrageous, so there had to be a reason for it. Either it was to set my injury back or it was because doing all this walking was actually a good thing.

Later that night at my hotel, my toe was quite painful, and again the following morning. But by lunchtime, it felt like a miracle had happened. I could walk with hardly any pain or discomfort. It was amazing, the difference even from that morning. I was walking around in total disbelief.

I’m guessing that all the walking had actually increased blood flow to the area and helped the injury to heal faster. So walking all that distance had been a good thing.

I’d never have voluntarily elected to walk what amounted to about 2 miles in shoes, with a broken toe. If I’d have said I was going to do that, most people would have thought I was joking.

The moral of the story is this. There are times when life presents us with a set of circumstances that seem wrong, or painful at the time. Maybe we have to walk a long way around, maybe we are rejected by a person or group, maybe we lose out on something we had our heart set on, maybe we lose a lot of money or something valuable, or any of an infinite number of seeming problems or mishaps.

But maybe it’s not karma, maybe you’re not being punished, maybe God doesn’t have it in for you, maybe you’re not unlucky. Maybe you are simply being guided, re-directed because there’s a better way that you’re just not seeing right now. Or even it’s as if your higher self, soul, or God, is saying, “I have something (or someone) better in mind for you.”

So next time things seem to be going in the wrong direction, maybe it’s not the wrong direction at all. Maybe it’s just the best way to get to where you need to be.

Happy dog, happy heart

I find myself writing this piece today because it was 5 years ago on this day that my dog, Oscar (main photo), passed away from bone cancer at the age of just over 2. He came into my life two days before I started writing my book about self love / self esteem, ‘I Heart Me’, and he passed away two days before I submitted the final manuscript to my publisher (Hay House). He was in my life for the exact duration I was working on the book. It helped me deal with the loss to believe that he came into my life to help me.

One of the things he inspired me to do was research some of the beneficial effects of animals in our lives. It turns out that dogs are good for the heart.

In a study of 369 patients who’d had a heart attack, for example, the chances of them having another heart attack within a year was 400% less if they had a dog. While we might logically assume that this figure is entirely due to the exercise of taking a dog for a walk, research suggests that exercise is only part of it. A significant contributing factor is the quality of relationship a person has with their dog.

Research published in ‘Science’, found that when dog owners interacted warmly with their dogs for 30 minutes, for example, oxytocin levels increased by 300% in the humans (and by 130% in the dog). Yes, the dog benefits too. Key is that these numbers only apply to people with good human-dog relationships. There is much less change in oxytocin levels when relationships are not close.

What’s the importance of oxytocin? Well, as well as being a reproductive hormone, it has many other roles in the body. In the brain, it aids bonding and trusting behaviour. When we eat food, it helps digestion by improving gastric motility. It helps wound repair by aiding capillary growth and working with growth factors. But it plays a huge role in the cardiovascular system. It is a cardioprotective hormone – it protects the cardiovascular system. It does this in two main ways, first by reducing blood pressure and second by clearing blood vessels of inflammation and oxidative stress (free radicals).

We find the same kind of effect in human relationships too. People with better quality relationships tends to have healthier cardiovascular systems.

I call oxytocin ‘the kindness hormone’ and have done in my books on kindness (Why Kindness is Good for You, The Five Side Effects of Kindness’ and ‘The Little Book of Kindness (my illustrated book)’), because it is associated with feelings that can be brought on by kindness.

Closeness produces oxytocin, hugs produce it, love produces it, friendship produces it, affection, compassion, gentleness too. It is certainly associated with behaviours of the heart. It’s nice that Nature rewards these heart behaviours with a healthier heart. It’s as if Nature is saying, ‘Yes! More of this please’. Just as we train a dog by offering rewards for certain behaviour, perhaps Nature is training us humans by rewarding our good behaviours.

Dogs don’t ask for much. Other than food, they really just ask that you love them. That makes a happy dog. The emotional reward you get is some happiness. The physical reward is a boost to your cardiovascular system. Happy dog, happy heart!

Of course, the same also applies to other animals we bond with, like cats, rabbits, horses. Indeed, a study of rabbits indeed found that those shown more affection had healthier hearts. All animals have an oxytocin system. Oxytocin is so important to us, and animals, that the oxytocin gene is one of the oldest genes we have, at around 500 million years old. That it’s with us after all this time tells us how important it is for health – ours and that of animals.

It’s the love and kindness that we show each other and to animals that matters.

Be kind. Show compassion and affection. Be gentle. With each other and with animals.

Some things in life are really quite simple.

Do you see things as they are, or as You are?

virtual reality simulationLook at grass. We say it is green. But it’s not inherently green. It’s green for us because we have 3 photoreceptors in our eyes that are sensitive to specific wavelengths of light. If we had different photoreceptors, grass would appear different. Grass is beige to a dog because a dog has 2 photoreceptors. Green doesn’t exist for a dog.

Is grass green, then, or beige? It’s neither. It is what it is … for you!

What about the solid world around you? If you look inside the atoms that compose everything, they are mostly empty space. So why don’t we fall through the ground we’re standing on?

Your weight presses against the floor and pushes the trillions of atoms in the floor against each other. The electrical forces in the atoms repel and push back. We feel the push as something solid but the push is electrical, not physical.

It’s the same for you as you stand on the floor. It pushes your atoms into each other, so they electrically push back. Energy on energy!

You might really think of it as one field of energy (human) pushing against another field of energy (the floor). Energy interacting with energy. It’s the same when we interact with each other – energy interacting with energy.

The perception of things being solid (including ourselves) is due to the interaction of energy fields. The form and colours are produced by our eyes.

The form, appearance, and feeling of ‘reality’ for us, then, is related to our perceptive abilities. Perhaps our deep consciousness (subconscious) interprets and shows us what we expect to see. I wonder if the world that babies see is less tangible than ours, and only becomes more ‘solid’ as they learn to accept our assumptions. As we grow up, ‘reality’ becomes more or less consistent for us.

If we had enough computing power, we could generate the same effect in virtual reality simulators, electrically stimulating the brain when a visual representation of a hand touches a visual representation of an object. It’s the basis of the films, ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Ready Player One’.

So do we perceive the ‘truth’ of reality? I don’t believe so. Perhaps a version. We don’t perceive things as they are, but according to who we are.🤓🤔

Do what’s in your heart

Do what’s in your heart. Be yourself.

We often doubt ourselves and imagine that we have to change so that the world accepts us. We imagine we need to compromise on our dreams, on doing what makes our hearts sing, in order to succeed.

But instead of you bending to meet the world, be yourself, unapologetically, wholeheartedly, and the world often bends to meet you. It’s as if the Universe says, ‘Yes’, well done for being yourself and staying with what feels true for you’.

I remember writing my first book, ‘It’s the Thought that Counts’. I started in 2003 and self-published it two years later after being turned down by every publisher I contacted. Among some advice I received was that I needed to write a more self help-type book, and not just a book about the mind-body and mind-world connection.

It’s useful to take advice at times, of course, but I knew in my heart this was what I needed to write about. It’s what I knew about and I knew in my heart that I had to express what I knew, regardless of whether people would read it or not.

Nine books later and it was absolutely the right thing to do. It set the tone for most of my other books, including ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, which was my route into HEAL documentary. My first book wasn’t a blockbuster, but it opened doors and helped me establish myself.

Even now, being myself is crucial. I write and speak a lot about kindness, yet kindness doesn’t sell as much as many other topics. I could easily dial it down, but I don’t. I am also very grateful to @hayhouseuk for supporting me in this way.

Writing and speaking about kindness is in my heart. It’s part of who I am. Regardless of whether any of my kindness books (I’ve written 3) ever becomes a bestseller, I know there’s a purpose in me doing it. I know this because it feels like the right thing to do.

Ultimately, being yourself isn’t about short term results. It’s about being in it for the long term. It’s about being and expressing You.

Seeming negatives in the short term are just part of the path to finding yourself.

Ultimately, if you be yourself, you’re already succeeding, regardless of what the world tells you.😊

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.❤️🦋😊

Don’t judge people as you never know what they’re going through

I remember waiting in line a coffee shop once, and a woman drove over my foot on a mobility scooter. She didn’t look back to apologise. At the time I did have a thought that a person would usually have said sorry, but I let it go because, well, you never know.

Shortly afterwards, I found myself sitting at the next table along from her. She was flustered and was on the phone. It turned out she has MS and this was her first day with a mobility scooter. She wasn’t confident driving it and took refuge in the coffee shop, only she struggled to control it with having never driven one before.

She was upset because she’d stopped earlier and struggled to get it started again. She was worried about being stranded if it happened again so was asking the shop if there might be a fault and if someone could come and check.

I felt such compassion that I nearly cried. I also felt so guilty because I had judged her, even if for just a second. I remember beating myself up afterwards for even having had the thought in the first place.

The thing is, in life we really can’t know what a person is experiencing, or has experienced, in their life unless they tell us. We form all sorts of beliefs about people, whether this person is a good person or that person is a bad person, based on one or two interactions.

I try to be gentle with people, but I expect lots of people have judged me based on their interpretation of a single instance. And I’ll bet the same is true for you, regardless of the type of person you try to be.

We form much of our emotional world through perceptions of people and circumstances, but these are not truths, only beliefs.

I find it helps in finding some peace by reminding myself that I can’t know what influences or shapes a person’s actions without knowing their back story, and what’s currently happening in their life. Doing this allows us to step back from a situation and take a breath. Most of the time, judgement falls away and understanding or compassion at least has a chance to surface.

Be gentle with people. Be patient. Try to be understanding. And forgive yourself when you’re not. We’re all just trying to do the best we can.

Emotions are currency, the exchange rate is empathy

We live in a world where statistics tell us how things are and the chances of something happening. Many of us take statistics we hear as facts, assuming that they apply to each of us individually. While statistics are immensely useful and they can give us startling insights and make astonishing predictions, we all know that we are individuals, not statistics.

We would be correct in dismissing many statistics as impersonal and lacking a true meaning for anyone in particular.

For example, we hear that the average human lifespan is ‘x’ for females and ‘y’ for males, but that figure varies from one country to the next and also varies tremendously with any one person’s dietary or other lifestyle habits. So, while statistics might provide a loose guide, they are not specific to any of us in particular.

Similarly, we hear that the likelihood of cancer, or the survival rate from one disease or other is such and such a number, but again, that varies greatly from one person to the next. It is a statistic made up of average outcomes averaged over a large number of people whose life circumstances vary greatly and who live under a variety of conditions and have different dietary habits.

Hidden within statistics are details most of us miss. It’s these details that most of us resonate more strongly with. I’d like to illustrate this with the contagiousness of emotions, and happiness in particular because this is something that affects us all.

Using data from a large social network of around 5000 people, Nicholas Christakis, professor of social and natural sciences at Yale, and James Fowler, professor of medical genetics at UC San Diego, calculated that the chances of catching happiness from someone is 15%. That’s a figure that has since been banded around a bit and most people assume that it applies to each and every one of us.

The figure actually represents a social network of a typical town in the US (Framingham) and means that if someone you know, whether a family member, friend, work colleague, or social tie becomes happier, then there is a 15% chance that you will become happier as a consequence. But it is an average statistic.

First, before I explain, you’d be forgiven for wondering how it’s even possible to ‘catch’ happiness. Surely your happiness is your own and is down to your own choices and what happens in your life. Well, it happens in a couple of ways. One is through emotional contagion, the other is through social contagion.

Emotional contagion is where we directly catch someone’s emotions, mostly due to a brain circuit known as the Mirror Neuron System (MNS), which essentially copies (mirrors) a person’s emotional expression – the facial expressions as they express emotion, bodily expressions, vocal intonations, etc – which then replicates in you the emotion that corresponds to those muscle movements.

Social contagion is where we copy (not always intentionally) behaviour and attitudes. A person feeling happy might indulge in different behaviour from when they weren’t quite so happy, and if you are hanging with them then you might likely indulge in that behaviour too. Either way, we are always catching emotions from each other.

But to say that the chances of you catching happiness from someone is 15% misses something very important. Christakis and Fowler pointed out that the figure is an average, and one that varies from one person (or relationship) to the next, and from one set of circumstances to the next.

To illustrate, the 15% figure is an average over all your relationships – close friends, distant friends, family members, neighbours, work colleagues you interact with. If you were to just count your friends (so not your family members, neighbours, colleagues, etc) you would have a 25% chance of becoming happier if a friend becomes happier. Now, what if you only counted your closest friends, the ones you see most often and spend most time with? Now the figure jumps to 63%. You have a 63% chance of becoming happier if a close friend becomes happier.

There’s a world of difference between 15% and 63%, just as there is a world of difference in lifespan (and healthspan, i.e. vitality in old age) between two people who indulge in vastly different lifestyles.

As we know from online social networking, ‘friend’ has a rather broad meaning these days. Most people only have a small number of close friends – between 2 and 6. But if someone asked us to name our friends, we would likely name many more than this, and the quality of friendship would vary from one to the next. As ‘friends’ we would not only include close friends, we would also name people we see from time to time but are not that close with. In the study, the figure of 63% comes from close friends only, the ones we spend time with regularly. You can catch emotion in a single meeting, but it takes consistency for it to stick.

It turns out that catching happiness depends on the type of friendship, or more specifically, how you see the friendship. Happiness is more contagious if you’re close to someone, for example, or if you like them.

For example, if I named Adam as a friend, whether he named me or not his happiness would have about a 25% effect upon me. This is the 25% figure quoted above if you just count your friends. But if Adam named me as a friend and I didn’t name him, that is, it was a one-way friendship – he sees me as a friend, but I don’t see him in the same way – then the effect would only be 12%. Adam’s change in emotional state would have little effect on me because I don’t consider Adam to be as much of a friend as he sees me. As a result, his emotional state has less of an impact on me. But if we named each other as a friend, so the friendship is clearly mutual, it goes both ways, the likelihood of me catching his happiness is 63%.

It turns out that the contagiousness of happiness (and all emotions) depends on how you see the friendship. In my opinion, empathy is what matters. Emotional contagion, as it is called, depends on how much you empathise with a person, how much of them you let in. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone. Empathy is, “I Feel with you,” according to Kristen Neff, associate professor in the department of emotional psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “I see you” is another interpretation, made popular in the film, Avatar. It is how you ‘see’ a person, whether you see them as a friend or not.

In one sense, emotions are currency, they are exchanged from one person to the next. We can catch happiness, depression, even love and fear. But how much you catch depends on how you see a person. It depends on how much you empathise with them.

In addition, whether you accept what someone tells you or whether you will do as they ask – a transaction – will depend to a large extent on how the person makes you feel. If you don’t feel good, you don’t empathise with the person, or don’t like the person, you’re much less likely to do what he or she asks, and even if you do, you might resent the person. But if you do like them, you empathise with them, or like how they make you feel (perhaps because you agree with them or can see the value in what they ask you to do), then you will more likely do it. The transaction will be successful. This is the basis of leadership.

So, emotions are currency, and they regulate many things, but empathy is the exchange rate. So just like if someone gave you 1 unit of something, say 1 Euro or 1 dollar, it does not equate to 1 British pound. How much of the 1 unit you get depends upon the exchange rate. In the same way, how much of a person’s emotions you catch also depends on an exchange rate.

But here, the exchange rate is empathy.

Happiness is contagious, but how much you catch depends on how you feel about the person who shares it.

You can read more about this and similar studies, covering many aspects of emotional and social contagion, in David R Hamilton, PhD, ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking‘, Hay House (London, 2011).