Kindness - the most important habit of all?

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Ebenezer Scrooge throws open the window on that snowy Christmas morning and throws the young boy in the street some money to get him the prize turkey from the poulterers shop, plus a generous tip for his time. What Dickens is showing us is that a new man has been born, a kind one. It’s the central theme of the book, the notion that being kind and generous not only makes others happy, but you too in the process. Of course it’s framed in Victorian godliness, with kindness ultimately being the way to redemption.

In more modern times, there’s a wonderful episode of Friends entitled ‘The one where Phoebe hates PBS’, where she tries to prove to Joey that selfless good deeds do exist. What follows are numerous attempts by her to show kindness, but frustratingly for her, she keeps feeling good about it, proving Joey’s point that when being kind to others, there’s always something in it for you too. But hey, that’s ok, it’s what the legendary self-help author Stephen Covey would call ‘Win:Win’.

I’ve spent my adult life searching for the magical formula for what makes us fitter, healthier and happier, my very own grail quest if you will. It led me down a long and winding path that ultimatelybrought me to the point where I realised it wasn’t one single thing that provides us with wellbeing, rather a broad collection of habits that must be regularly performed in much the same way as plants need regular feeding and watering to thrive.

But…what if there were one habit that may just be more important than all of the others? Partly because it’s such a powerful habit in terms of its ability to boost your mental wellbeing, but also because in turn, those changes in mental wellbeing boost your energy and motivation to perform the other healthy habits. I’ve come to suspect that the habit in question might be kindness.

Kindness isn’t an emotion, it’s an action and that’s why it’s so powerful. Unlike say happiness, which we’re all constantly seeking, which we feel pressure to experience more often, especially in the picture-perfect world of social media. But happiness is a feeling, and feelings can need experiences and actions for them to occur. Much like the recent piece I wrote noting that something makes you happy and that happiness makes you smile, but smiling as an action in itself can also make you happy. You can’t just feel happy, something has to happen to feel an emotion. Kindness is different, it’s an act and the wonderful thing is, that being kind makes you happy.

The Mental Health Foundation Report

Back in 2012, The Mental Health Foundation produced a great little free download for Mental Health Awareness Week. In it, they summarised the effects of doing good and helping others on our wellbeing. In brief, they reported that:

  • Stress levels decrease and our immune system is strengthened

  • There’s a decrease in negative feelings like anger, aggression and hostility

  • Our mood improves, as does self-esteem and confidence

  • Happiness levels rise quickly and this brings increased feelings of calm in the long-term

  • Social connections improve; we have a greater sense of belonging and therefore feel less isolated

  • We feel more optimistic about things

As well as just interacting more with people, these benefits could derive from a sense of perspective gained from helping others less fortunate than yourself, an increased level of support due to reciprocity (others tend to help you more when you help them and over time it appears that you can build a ‘kindness bank’ of memories that helps you to feel good about yourself.

Happy hormones

Numerous chemical changes occur through acts of kindness. Dopamine, serotonin, opioid and oxytocin are all increased in the ‘flood that comes from doing good’. Even witnessing others being kind releases the same substances, but doing it yourself delivers a greater dose. These hormones have a positive impact on mood, increase relaxation and lead to less feelings of depression, but also reduce physical measures like blood pressure and feelings of pain. One study showed that levels of the stress hormone cortisol were 23 per cent lower in people who were more kind, and kindness even appeared to slowed the ageing process.

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The research

Here’s a collection of scientific studies and their findings in relation to kindness and wellbeing. Just cos you know, it’s nice to know I’m not just making it up! ;-)

  • In one study, students from a university were tasked with performing five random acts of kindness (RAK’s) each week. They could be small like making someone a cup of tea or bigger like giving blood, the choice was theirs. Over six weeks, wellbeing scores improved in students who took part, versus those who didn’t

  • Another study of Japanese university students found that happy people were generally kinder than unhappy folk. They also found that happiness increased through simply counting the number of acts of kindness you performed, which in turn made them kinder still and more grateful

  • MS (Multiple Sclerosis) sufferers who provided peer support to others with the condition had less symptoms of depression and improved their confidence, self-awareness and self-esteem

  • In a study looking at how the brain responded to acts of kinds, MRI scans showed that there was increased activity in the meso-limbic system, an area stimulated when we are rewarded. Helping others appears to give us pleasure sensation, a type of euphoria sometimes referred to as ‘helper’s high’ 

Of course, as with everything, we can have too much of a good thing and other research has noted that too much helping or volunteering can overwhelm us, leaving us feeling stressed and at times outweighing the benefits we derive. This has been referred to as compassion fatigue. Helping others to the extent that we don’t help ourselves enough, maybe financially, by not giving us enough time to do the things important to us, or just to the point where we become overly tired (being helpful takes effort) can all have a negative impact on wellbeing, so it’s important to find the right balance.

What can we do?

Acts of kindness can come in many forms, large to small - picking something up for someone if they drop it, holding a door or letting a car out in traffic can all be easy wins. You might go further and provide mentoring services to someone, raise money for good causes or even do some volunteering.

Apparently, we tend to volunteer more as we get older, maybe because we have more free time or generally a better income which allows us to be more generous, or maybe our values change as we age? Whatever the reason, clearly it’s a helpful thing to do; studies show that people of 55 or over had a 44% lower risk of dying young when they did volunteering.

I’ll leave you with two quotes from very different people, but both equally powerful.

We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.
— Mother Theresa
We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.
— Winston Churchill

Be kind,