Published: 11 November 2020. Written by: Jaime Thurston
When it comes to optimising our health, kindness might not be something that automatically springs to mind – but science has shown that it should be.
Helping people to understand not just how to be more kind, but also the impact kindness will have on our minds and bodies was the motivation for writing my first book. I wanted to highlight a clear link between our actions and our health. Kindness is not a luxury, or something that’s just nice to have, it’s essential for our collective wellbeing. And now, more than ever, we need to build strong, healthy, supportive communities.
In 2013, I started a charity called 52 Lives. It began as a small Facebook page for my friends and family, and has since grown into a global community of almost 100,000 people who help to change someone’s life every week of the year and spread kindness to people going through tough times. We also run free Kindness Workshops in primary schools to teach children about the science of kindness and why their actions matter.
When I started the charity, my aim was to help people in need. What I didn’t realise until years later was that what we were doing would help our supporters as much as our beneficiaries.
The science of kindness is well documented and explains what we perhaps know intuitively but can’t verbalise – kindness helps us feel good, mentally and physically. It helps to relieve anxiety and depression, protect our hearts and it slows the ageing process. To put it simply, kindness makes us healthier and happier.
The science of kindness
Like most medical antidepressants, kindness stimulates the production of the feel-good chemical serotonin. It also causes elevated levels of dopamine in the brain, giving us a natural high (sometimes referred to as a helper’s high).
Kindness also produces oxytocin, which in turn triggers the release of nitric oxide which dilates the blood vessels and lowers blood pressure, thereby protecting the heart. Oxytocin also reduces the level of free radicals in the body (free radicals speed up the ageing process). So being kind can actually slow down the visible signs of ageing.
Research by the Mental Health Foundation found that more than 82 per cent of UK adults have experienced stress because of the pandemic. That stress can have a negative effect on our health, but it can be countered with kindness. Dr David Hamilton, an author and expert in the science of kindness (and also my charity’s honorary scientific advisor), explains it beautifully. He says at a physiological level, kindness is the opposite of stress and therefore has the opposite impact on the body.
‘Small amounts of stress are OK and even relatively large amounts, too, if not too frequent,’ says Dr Hamilton. ‘But consistent stress is associated with poor health outcomes through having a negative impact on the heart, arteries and immune system. Stress is ultimately associated with shortened lifespan.’
However, if we flip that on its head, feelings induced by kindness reduce blood pressure, calm the nervous system and elevate the immune system.
And, incredibly, these changes occur in our bodies whether we are giving kindness, receiving kindness – or even just witnessing kindness.
We are in the midst of a pandemic, and the mental health of the nation has become a pressing concern. There is a lot of discussion about spending time in nature, eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep – and quite rightly so. But let’s also start talking about the way we treat one another.
How can I practise being kind?
I’ve been interviewed a lot about kindness, and one question crops up every time: ‘What’s the best thing people can do to be kind?’
There’s obviously no right answer, but I have developed a view on it over the years, and these are my top three:
- Give people your full attention. It’s a simple but powerful way to show kindness, and it’s incredibly rare. We have a rule in our house – if someone talks to you, you put down your screen. It’s not always easy, but it has had a tangible impact on the overall vibe in our home, and on our family relationships.
- Be kind to unkind people (they need it the most). It’s easy to be kind to people you like or agree with, but a lot more challenging to be kind to people you find rude or annoying. When someone is unkind, your first instinct might be to stoop to their level. But being unkind, or being around unkindness, will have a negative effect on your health. Don’t put your wellbeing in other people’s hands. Rise above and choose to be kind, even when those around you may not be.
- Do the small stuff. One thing I’ve learnt from running 52 Lives is that being kind is not about grand gestures. The people we help all say the same thing: that it wasn’t necessarily the thing we gave them that changed their life, it was the kindness. It was knowing people cared about them. The small stuff matters: say sorry, smile, offer help, or send a text to let someone know you’re thinking of them. During the first lockdown, a neighbour I had never met left some tinned tomatoes on my doorstep. At any other time, it would have been a very weird gesture. But at that moment, with everything we were going through, it was an act of pure kindness. Those little moments are what make up our lives – not the one-off big gestures.
I’m a firm believer in the power of kindness. It determines our home life, it forges strong, resilient communities, and it creates a better, healthier world. I also believe most people are innately good, but sometimes we just get caught up in our own little worlds or stuck in negative thinking.
This year has been filled with chaos, fear and uncertainty, but we are not powerless. We can always choose how we treat people and the attitude with which we approach life. So just choose to approach your life from a place of kindness. Your mind and body will thank you for it.
Jaime Thurston is the author of ‘Kindness: The Little Thing that Matters Most’. Her new book ‘The Kindness Journal: Little Activities to Make a Big Difference’ is out on 7 January 2021.
To find out more about the benefits of kindness and how to practice it, check out our article on the 8 acts of kindness we can all do here.
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