The Mother Theresa Effect

Female hand holding cup of coffee on white wooden table. The coffee has a heart made out of chocolate dust on it.
image: iStock / Getty

I was sitting at the window of a coffee shop working on my laptop. I write my books in coffee shops. I enjoy the atmosphere, having some life around me. And I enjoy the coffee too, of course. 

I was working on a book chapter at the time, on the subject of kindness.

A young girl caught my attention as she walked past a homeless person because she paused for a moment, as if deliberating on something, and then walked on. She returned a few minutes later with a hot drink and some food. 

They spoke for a moment or two and then the girl walked off, disappearing into the crowd of shoppers and people going to work.

It was a seemingly small thing, hardly noticed amid the volume of people scurrying by, but it had a lasting impression on me. I found myself being a little kinder, a little gentler, a little more friendly, a little more thoughtful, a little more patient, and even a little more grateful throughout the rest of the day.

I often wonder. I don’t think we quite realise the impact nor the importance of kindness in the world. Even hearing about or witnessing people being kind can make a big difference to things. Children are especially influenced.

In one simple study that examined the impact of kids witnessing kind acts, a group of children watched a bowling video but half of them were shown an extra ending where the winner gave their winning certificate away to charity. Later, all of the children were given certificates, but those who had seen the extra ending were more likely to follow suit and give their certificates away too.

A lot happens inside us too when we witness the kindness of others. Not only does it inspire kindness in us and spark kindness contagion, but it can even impact the immune system.

In a Harvard study, volunteers watched a 50-minute video of Mother Theresa showing compassion and kindness on the streets of Calcutta (now Kolkata). The researchers measured levels of an important immune system antibody in the volunteers before they watched the video, immediately after it finished, and then again an hour later.

The antibody is known as s-IgA, or secretory Immunoglobulin A, and it’s a fairly good proxy for overall immune function. If you eat some food that’s contaminated, it’s the first part of your immune system that responds.

Simply watching the Mother Theresa video had a significant effect on it. Levels of s-IgA increased significantly, and they stayed elevated for an hour afterwards as the volunteers continued to reflect on the compassion and kindness that they had witnessed in the video.

Why does witnessing kindness have such a profound effect in the body? 

There’s two reasons for it. The first is that we’re genetically wired for kindness. Our species has survived for as long as it has because we helped each other, cared for our young, and we have loved. Over time, human biology simply evolved so that love, compassion, and kindness were reflected in healthy physiological states because they kept us alive in the long term.

The second reason is more subtle and reflects why it doesn’t matter whether you’re the giver, receiver, or even witness to kindness, even if the latter is not Live, but on video or via a clip shared via social media. 

It’s because it’s not in being kind itself that brings about most of the effects of kindness. It’s how kindness feels that matters. I’ve written about this in other blogs when justifying why kindness is the opposite of stress.

It’s not a seemingly stressful event that produces any physiological effects of stress, but how the event feels to you that does it. The event is simply the scene. The physiological effects come from how stress feels within that scene.

It’s why two people can experience the same event or happening and only one of them feels stressed by it. That person will have elevated stress hormone levels as a consequence, but the person who was unaffected won’t.

Similarly, whether you give, receive, or witness kindness is the scene, the backdrop, the context. It’s how kindness feels within that context that has physiological effects.

That’s why kindness almost always has an effect, regardless of whether you’re the giver, the receiver, or the witness to it.

I say almost always here, because there are times when some people give too much kindness and feel taken for granted. While plenty of research shows that kindness benefits our mental and physical health, some research clearly points out that this is true only up until a point.

I had that experience several years ago when some friends and I founded a charity together. At first, we all felt inspired by a sense of purpose. The goal of the charity was to help children affected by war and poverty. It was easy to feel driven for such a worthy cause.

But after a year or more of struggling to raise money and working long hours in the process, much of the joy had gone and the sense of purpose that personally kept me buoyant was replaced by a what felt like simply going to work, except in a job where I didn’t get paid that had left me completely broke and now heavily in debt, and the job was often tiring and stressful. Fortunately, we made some changes and things came together, but the experience taught me much.

Kindness isn’t always good for you, especially if you wear yourself out in the process. Finding a balance is important.

If you do find that you’re being over stretched or taken for granted, then you can still practice kindness by turning the kindness towards yourself. These are times when self-kindness must take centre stage, even if just for a short while.

You do deserve it.

So look out for kindness. Focus it on yourself if you need to, offer it to others if you can. And just notice it all around you. It’s everywhere, if you really look.

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  1. Monika Ashton on July 29, 2022 at 6:41 pm

    Good article. I enjoy watching Zoo episodes with the animals and their handlers, and the affection they share for each other.
    At different times when I have stopped to give a person a few dollars and their eyes light up, that is when I have felt true empathy.

  2. Monika Ashton on July 29, 2022 at 7:57 pm

    deep compassion

  3. Donna Perrino on July 29, 2022 at 10:31 pm

    Shout this to the world!!!

  4. Amanda Duncan on July 30, 2022 at 4:00 pm

    Lovely and so true! Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

  5. Jan on July 31, 2022 at 9:06 pm

    Thank you David for your words of wisdom.
    God Bless you and your work.

  6. Maria on August 3, 2022 at 11:57 am

    It’s a pity that more people don’t get to read articles like this and inspire them to be kinder people.

  7. Tania on August 6, 2022 at 9:53 am

    Some wonderful life lessons right here.

  8. Gillian O Shea on August 9, 2022 at 7:23 pm

    Such a beautiful post thank you for spreading some kindness xx

    • David Hamilton on August 10, 2022 at 10:34 am

      Thanks 🙂

      • Gkagkaras Stylianos on November 18, 2022 at 8:28 am

        Thanks a lot for the happy news

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