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Should Kindness be one of your 5 a day?

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Hazel Gale

Summer 2016

Should Kindness Be One of Your Five-A-Day?

“Studies have shown a connection between acts of kindness and improvements in conditions of chronic illness including HIV, heart disease and multiple sclerosis.”

Mark was depressed. He had been that way for most of his adult life. By December of 2014, he’d grown so desperate that he thought frequently of ending things. By the time Christmas had been and gone, he was committed to the idea; the first thing he had truly committed to in years.

Increasingly, he distanced himself from his friends and family. It was a vicious, self-feeding cycle of disconnection. The lonelier he felt, the further he retreated into himself.

Then one morning, on a busy suburban street, Mark’s attention was drawn to an old pedestrian who needed help at the traffic lights. Almost robotically, he linked arms with the stranger, and as they slowly crossed the street, he noticed how heavily the old man had to lean on him.

In that brief moment of interaction, Mark felt something he hadn’t felt in years; he felt valuable. As the old man clutched his arm, the weight of his frail body spoke to a part of Mark which had long been dormant. It was the part that takes joy in other people’s happiness; a simple thing that we’re all capable of doing, yet can be so easily lost amidst the ego-focussed demands of Western society.

And so on that bleak, winter’s day, the dark and heavy feeling in his chest began to lighten. By the time the traffic lights turned green again, Mark had taken on a new perspective. He was able to begin seeing the world as a place in which he wanted to be; a place where he was welcome and needed and important. On reflection, he considered how unusual it was for a stranger to ask for help in such a direct way. It was almost, he thought, as if that old man had known exactly what he was doing.

[This is a true story. To protect his privacy, this individual’s name and some details have been changed]

Random acts of kindness (RAK’s) can help heal emotional (and arguably physical 1) dis-ease. I sometimes challenge clients who feel depressed, invisible, disempowered or disconnected to perform one act of kindness every day. It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic. Just buying someone a coffee, or holding the door open could be deemed an RAK.

It’s such a simple task, but it can have surprisingly powerful effects on a person’s emotional state.

In his book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Case Professor Stephen Post explores the benefits of being giving. He cites a 50-year study which indicates that people who are generous with their time, money, work (or whatever) during their high school years enjoy better health thereafter. Other studies have shown a connection between acts of kindness and improvements in conditions of chronic illness including HIV, heart disease and multiple sclerosis.

In a 1999 study led by Doug Oman of the University of California, Berkeley, elderly people who volunteered for two or more organisations were found to be 44 percent less likely to die over a five-year period than were non-volunteers. This was true, even after controlling for their age, exercise habits, general health, and negative health habits like smoking.

The Mechanics of Kindness

There are a number of factors contributing to the healing power of generosity. Firstly, the act of giving forces someone to look beyond the borders of the Self. As we saw in Mark’s story above, depression tends to cause people to cut themselves off from the world. This is actually a defence mechanism; the mind thinks it can help relieve the discomfort of a negative emotional state by hiding away and thinking about it.

Everyone will do this differently. Some ruminate over the past; endlessly replaying painful or distressing memories in their mind as if that will help them to change what happened.

Others do this in the future tense and repeat potentially catastrophic outcomes in their mind as if by doing so they will make the disaster less likely to happen.

Of course, regardless of the positive intentions behind these thought processes, the actual effect is to galvanise the negative feelings they were intended to remedy.

People offering free oxytocin boosts on the street (see Free Hugs Campaign)

Oxytocin: Hormonal Happiness

At the biochemical level, practicing acts of kindness can stimulate the release of a chemical called oxytocin into the brain.

Oxytocin is a hormone which acts primarily as a neuromodulator and is responsible for the strong emotional connection between family members and friends. It’s released when we hug one another, when couples have sex and during childbirth.

Oxytocin is known as a “cardioprotective” hormone because it stimulates the release of nitric oxide, which dilates the blood vessels and concurrently reduces blood pressure.

Mirror Neurons: Borrowed Happiness

In his book, The Happiness Advantage, positive psychology expert Shawn Achor explores the relationship between happiness, success and mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are a rather special component of primate neurology which have been credited for the rapid acceleration of the evolution of the human brain. They are neurons which fire both when we act and when we observe an action performed by another.

As these neurons “mirror” the actions of others, they cause us to mentally mimic those behaviours as if we were doing them ourselves. This, of course, is true of not only physical movements but also of emotional states like cheerfulness, excitement and nervousness.

And so, when we perform an act of kindness for someone else, their resultant happiness and gratitude are not just things we can feel proud of, but also things we can feel for ourselves.

From personal experience, I can assure you that the positive hangover from a genuinely good deed can have lasting effects. I once caught an elderly lady as she tripped down the escalators at Liverpool Street Underground Station.

The station was quiet that day, and had she tumbled past me, she would almost certainly have been badly injured (or worse). Interestingly, although my reaction had to be nigh on instantaneous, there was a moment when I was acutely aware of my mind weighing up my two options: to catch her and risk losing my balance as well, or to lean back and save myself. I’m very happy (and proud) to say that my unconscious opted for the former.

At the bottom of the escalator, I helped her onto her train and saw her on her way. For the rest of that day, I was untouchable. There was a spring in my step. I smiled stupidly at strangers for no particular reason. I still get a warm glow just thinking about it years later.

If Achor and Positive Psychology are correct, then happiness leads to success (not the other way around as is more commonly believed).

So, if you want to see a boost in your emotional well-being, your physical health, as well perhaps, as an increase in your productivity and levels of achievement, then commit to a diet of (at least) one RAK a day and see what improvements you can make. At the very least, you can feel good about what you’ve done that day, and you never know, it could even save your life.