‘A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.’ (Saint Basil the Great as cited in Eklund, 2010)
In a competitive society, kindness may be viewed as a weak quality practised by the meek pleasers of the world but, in truth, kindness is a powerful force which underpins everything we do and everything we are. Born out of empathy and compassion, it is what bonds our relationships, gives our lives meaning, and builds our self-esteem. It turns out that kindness may also help us live longer, healthier lives.
In his latest book ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness’, Dr David R. Hamilton outlines the many and varied benefits of this natural human phenomenon. Hamilton looks at studies that have shown that individuals who act with compassion and kindness over an extended period of time experience an increase in positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, hope and contentment, as well as an increase in their levels of happiness and self-esteem. Perhaps unsurprisingly—compared with those who are more self-focused—kind folk are typically more satisfied with their lives and have a greater sense of wellbeing (Hamilton, 2017).
In keeping with relatively recent discoveries in neuroplasticity, it has been discovered that meditating on kindness can even create physical changes in the brain. These changes occur both on the left side of the prefrontal cortex, the centre of positivity and compassion, and in the insula cortex which is responsible for cognitive-emotional processes such as empathy (Hamilton, 2017). It seems the more we focus on being kind and on thinking of the welfare of others, the more our brains become hard-wired for this emotion.
Who would have thought that kindness could have physical health benefits too? Just as feelings of nervousness or excitement can result in a racing pulse, so too the feelings elicited by kindness can affect the brain and body, and especially the heart. When an individual performs an act of kindness, the body produces oxytocin. This hormone is responsible for a range of effects on the heart and arteries, is responsible for feelings of trust, and is implicated in our ability to interpret each other’s emotions. Oxytocin also reduces activity in the amygdala, where fear and anxiety are processed (Hamilton, 2017).
Hamilton concludes that because oxytocin is cardio-protective, so too are the very acts of kindness, love and bonding, which produce it. Oxytocin causes the cells that line arterial walls to relax, the arteries dilate, more blood flows through them to the heart and other organs, and blood pressure is reduced (Hamilton, 2017). Kindness can therefore be considered a protective factor against heart attack and stroke.
Kindness can have a therapeutic effect on our mental wellbeing too. Research suggests that the number of kind acts we perform in a day is inversely proportional to the amount of negative emotion we experience as a result of stressful events (Hamilton, 2017). Further studies reveal that kindness can be a powerful intervention for people who experience social anxiety or depression. These conditions cause us to withdraw into ourselves and typically avoid social activities. People who regularly perform acts of kindness, on the other hand, can experience a lift in their mood, improved confidence, and are less likely to avoid social situations (Hamilton, 2017). Focusing on helping others seems counterintuitive as a remedy for depression or social anxiety at first, but it is when we look outwards to the suffering and the needy that our natural tendency to care comes to life and the weight of depression or anxiety can progressively dissipate (Hamilton, 2017).
Hugh Mackay asserts that ‘intelligence is no protector of mental health’ (Mackay, 2013). We know that for our girls to strive and thrive, the greatest facilitator is kindness, not just from staff to girls, but across the whole school community. Recently, I asked some of our Year 7s about the kindnesses they had encountered since their arrival. They listed things like: being helped when they were lost; someone doing something for them without expecting anything in return; being invited to sit with others at lunchtime; girls making room so they could pass; others taking the time to listen to their ideas; being included in conversations; and even a simple smile or wave. These little acts of kindness in our community have all contributed to our newest Grammar girls developing a sense of connection and belonging.
On this earth not everyone is happy, not everyone has their needs met on a daily basis, so we need kindness. We need to be kind to ourselves and to others, and sometimes the smallest gesture can make a big difference. So listen attentively, forgive generously and give freely of your time and attention, remembering that your kindness can have the most powerful impacts, whether social, emotional, or even cardiovascular.
Eklund, J. (2010). The Third Testament. Bloomington: iUniverse Inc.
Hamilton, D R. (2017). The five side effects of kindness. London: Hay House UK Ltd.
Mackay, H. (2013). The good life. Sydney: Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd.