Kindness: Good for our minds?
Throughout history, difficult times have drawn out the best in human nature. Across the globe natural disasters, wars and economic recessions have been testament to this and it’s no different today. Each situation has been unprecedented and each has had its own unique struggles but, in each, we have seen truly inspirational acts of generosity and kindness.
As Dr Dwight McKee reminded us back in 2018, there is a famous quote that states, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Dr McKee goes on to say, “When faced with kindness, it is much easier to fight our battles, both large and small” and perhaps this is even more true at the moment. “Being kind helps keep your thoughts and feelings aligned with positive frequencies. This, in turn, helps us attract more positive thoughts, feelings, people and experiences in our lives. Being kind to others is, in effect, being kind to ourselves.”
So what do we mean by being kind? Kindness can be defined as the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate.1 It could be argued that people are being kind for some form of reward (strategic/self-interest). But it could also be argued that genuinely kind people are giving because it’s in their nature to care and tend to give out of the goodness of their heart (altruistic). Some may ask whether it matters. Either way, research has found, our mental wellbeing benefits. Sussex University2 conducted a study in 2018 which examined the brain cells of more than a thousand participants who were carrying out ‘acts of kindness’. This study split the analysis between what happens in the brain when people act out of genuine altruism and what happens when it’s strategic and the results showed that both groups benefited regardless of their motivations. In both, the reward area of the brain was more active (used more oxygen). However, in those from the altruistic set, other brain regions were also more active. The important point here is that this study confirms by helping others we are helping ourselves.
And it is this that was the focus of the 2012 Mental Health Foundation report: ‘Doing good? Altriuism and wellbeing in an age of austerity’.3 The MHF research found evidence to show that helping others is actually beneficial to our own mental health and wellbeing. The research showed it can reduce stress, improve our emotional wellbeing and even benefit our physical health. It showed that, when we help others, it can promote physiological changes in our brains linked with happiness – namely our brains release oxytocin (known as the love hormone) which causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide which lowers our blood pressure and improves heart health.
Helping others can also bring a sense of belonging and reduce isolation. It can help to get rid of or reduce negative feelings and help us to find inner calmness which can lead to more harmonious relationships. It is of note that, in the UK this year, Mental Health Awareness Week (18-22 May 2020), hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, focuses on the power and potential of kindness. 4 The original theme was sleep.
As we know, in times of crisis and difficulties, we all react differently. Some of us can be ‘cool, calm and collected’, whilst others can be reserved, angry or depressed. Some respond negatively, others look for the positives and some find it difficult to be rationale. And, of course, these feelings change from day to day. That’s okay. There is no ‘right’ way to react.
Similarly, the way we can help others differs. At times some of us need space whilst others may welcome someone to talk to. What’s important is that we know we have someone there should we need them and, often, the smallest of gestures go a long way.
As Dr. McKee said back in 2018, “…we’re often unaware of the struggles that people we meet, even those whom we know well, may be going through. When faced with kindness, it is much easier to fight our battles… Kindness may actually be one of the most important tools we have for shaping our lives. We don’t know what battles other people are facing. And they don’t know what we are dealing with either. But if we can all just act a little kinder, everyone on earth would benefit from the positive energy we can create.”
At the moment, almost everywhere, acts of kindness prevail. The kindness of our neighbours helping others with their groceries, a simple phone call, the number of grassroots mutual support groups. Perhaps these acts of kindness aren’t only driven during times of crisis? Perhaps we just notice them more? Whichever, this is the trajectory we should follow.