Kindness: The gift that gives back

As a society, we spend a lot of time, energy, and money thinking, talking and writing about ways to be healthier, feel better and live longer. You don’t need to look far for the evidence. Getting our kids in shape. Lowering our cancer risk. How to survive an overdose. All of the above have been topics of this blog in the last few months.

What if we took some of that energy that we devote to worrying about ourselves and our problems, and used it to help others with theirs? The notion of performing random acts of kindness has been around for a long time. Some will tell you that it started with the dawn of time, but much more recently, it has become something of a movement, starting with writer Anne Herbert famously scrawling the words “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty” on the back of a napkin in 1982.

People the world over believe that practicing random acts of kindness towards others is the way to live fuller, happier lives and become more connected to the world around us. And based simply on the benefits to those receiving these kind acts, it certainly seems like a movement that could, well, at the risk of sounding sentimental, make the world a better place.

But hey, not all of us are in it for the greater good. What’s in it for me? That’s where science comes in.

We’ve always known that doing nice things for others makes us feel good. In recent years, a series of studies have looked at charitable giving, volunteering and other behaviour that might be seen as kindness, trying to quantify the benefits for the givers.

Here’s what the research has found:

  • Being kind produces serotonin, which makes you feel calmer and happier. Interestingly, low serotonin levels are linked to depression.
  • The emotional warmth you feel when doing a good deed leads to the release of oxytocin, which lowers blood pressure.
  • Oxytocin, which is sometimes called the love hormone, also helps with self-esteem and optimism.
  • People who are kind have lower levels of cortisol, which is commonly known as the stress hormone. In a world where stress is waiting for us around every corner, kindness can protect us.
  • Kindness also produces endorphins, which are our body’s natural painkillers. So being a good Samaritan can actually help us manage chronic pain and reduce our reliance on drugs like opioids.

Read: We can’t stress this enough: April is Stress Awareness Month

Beyond the amazing range of feel-good chemicals that kindness produces, there is survey-based evidence that shows that kindness makes us less anxious, more social, less depressed and happier. Oh yeah, there’s also evidence that people who volunteer their time actually live longer.

November 13th was World Kindness Day, and of course it’s always a good idea to go out of your way on everyday to do something nice for a fellow human being. But given the benefits to all involved, let’s try to look at this day simply as the start of a new way of being. A kinder way of being that will pay you back in spades.

Here’s a few ideas if you’re stuck:

  • Volunteer at a food bank or other charity
  • Pay for the order of the car behind you at the drive-thru
  • Eat lunch with a co-worker who usually eats alone (Ask first. They may like eating alone.)
  • Give someone a compliment
  • Be a good listener
  • Pick up litter
  • Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while
  • Smile
  • Say thank you, and mean it
  • Offer to help – Someone may need it, and they may accept
  • Give a small gift that means something to the person getting it
  • Tell your waiter she’s doing a great job (and give her a really good tip if she earned it)
  • Ask a co-worker about something other than work

Read: Blood pressure and heart health – It’s all about risk

It doesn’t take a lot of time to be kind, and once you start, it can just become the way you are. If you really care about a cause and have a little disposable income, it’s great if you can donate to charity too, but if you live paycheque to paycheque like most of us, small acts are often free, and they go a long way.

If that’s not enough to convince you to practice kindness, consider that kindness is also contagious. It causes some of the same positive reactions in people who are the recipients of your kindness, and even those who simply observe it. And they are more likely to want to be kind themselves.

Read: Short winter days can lead to short fuse, anxiety, depression

This blog has touched on being kind to others, and certainly that is important. But you also need to be kind to yourself. And guess what, there is evidence that being kind to yourself can actually deliver the same benefits discussed above. Go ahead, go for that massage. Take time to meditate if you find that helps you. Buy yourself a little gift. It’s not cheating if you do it from a genuine feeling of wanting to be kind to yourself, as opposed to a selfish impulse.

Let’s all be a little kinder to one another, and to ourselves.