Kindness is the new ‘cool’

Thought for the week

Our theme for the week is kindness. We have explored what you can do to increase your mental wellbeing, but today we are looking at why.

There was a time when showing kindness was seen as a weakness. Now though, thanks to the rise in positive psychology, the scientific evidence showing that empathy and altruism are innate, and our current political, economic, environmental climate giving us as humans a need to have something good and hopeful to believe in, there is an encouraging surge in interest.

Kindness is currently a hot topic, taking over from mindfulness and happiness as the new ‘cool’.

Everywhere you look you will find articles, websites, scientific findings on ‘spending money on others promotes happiness’ and ‘empathy triggers oxytocin release’ and a plethora of books on the subject. Science now claims that we can increase our happiness, our wellbeing, even our level of mental health through simply spreading a little kindness!

What is kindness?
Kindness is intangible: it is hard to define.  Current science implies there are three potential elements to kindness described as empathy, tolerance and pro-active, honourable behaviour. But many people simply describe it as acting from a motivation of genuine warm feelings; to want to give. 

What is the power of kindness?

  • Kindness is contagious; imagine being the reason someone smiles today. When you smile, it usually prompts a smile in return. The psychological technique often called ‘mirroring’ says if you smile at me, I can’t resist smiling back. When you’re kind, the chances are that both you and the other person feel good as a result and then both ‘pay it back’ to include others. This means one good deed in a crowded area can quickly create a positive ‘feel good’ domino effect.  And if we take the time to be kind to other people, it not only benefits those who might be struggling, but we too can reap the emotional dividends.
  • Kindness reduces anxiety & stress: Studies amongst socially anxious participants showed that levels of anxiety decreased after 4 weeks of engaging in acts of kindness.  Further research indicates that when you are kind to another person your brain’s pleasure and reward centres are activated, as if you were the recipient of the good deed - not the giver (often known as the “helper’s high”). Perpetually kind people apparently have 23% less cortisol (the stress hormone) and age slower than the average population. Doing good for others helps boost your serotonin and dopamine levels, the neurotransmitters in your brain responsible for feelings of satisfaction, reward and wellbeing. Kindness and altruism also release endorphins - and that euphoric feeling that money just can’t buy.
  • Kindness can increase your status in life: Across three scientific experiments, more altruistic participants were found to be more respected, held in higher esteem, and were more likely to be chosen as group leaders. Perhaps kindness will become a new route to organisational success further increasing wellness in the workplace?
  • Kindness can reduce effects/levels of illness: In a randomised-controlled trial, patients who received more empathy from clinicians had reduced common-cold severity and duration and increased immune response levels.  If a little empathy can reduce the effects of common cold, then acts of kindness can clearly contribute to improving people’s emotional - and therefore mental - wellbeing.
  • Kindness gives you more time: Surprisingly participants who took part in a study in which they spent time writing and mailing a very sick child perceived themselves as having more time to themselves later. It seems that helping others lets you get outside of yourself and take a break from the stressors in your own life; perhaps it gives a wider meaning to life, in a way that self-attention never can?
  • Kindness is good for your heart: Studies have shown that participants with high blood pressure who were randomly requested to ‘spend’ on others exhibited decreased levels (similar to the effects of medication or exercise) over the course of the study. Kindness releases oxytocin, which causes the release of nitric oxide in blood vessels, which dilates the blood vessels and lowers blood pressure.
  • Kindness is good for society: When we give, we can feel closer to people, creating community and helping reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. When we have no-one to share our problems it can impact on our psychological mental resilience. When times get tough, it’s good to talk and share how you’re feeling, which is why social connection is important for our mental wellness.  In recent months we have seen that kindness is prevailing all over the world.  There is fear and struggle, but there is also community, support and hope.  Cultivating and extending kindness is an important step in creating a kinder society.

And now?
Colds, lack of time, work-place competitiveness and aggression, high blood pressure, and especially anxiety disorders are all major problems in western society. None are good for our mental health. What if kindness is the cure?  What if it were that simple?

With research in its early stages there is a great deal more to learn and we need to retain a level of caution, but the evidence is clearly pointing us to some good outcomes. The examples above indicate that there are many ways that simple acts of kindness can improve our physiological and psychological wellbeing.

The beauty of kindness is that it is open to anyone. So, take a minute to imagine a kinder society that improves and better protects your mental wellbeing. Including kindness in each and every decision you make or action you take - business, relationship, work or play related - can make a big difference to you, everyone around you, and potentially the global picture. 

Start the ripple - take an action to do something kind for a friend or a stranger today.  After all, it costs you nothing. But the rewards are endless.

Be kind to yourself and each other.

Published 21st May 2020

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