It’s official, being kind to others is good for you! Dr Meg Arroll – a chartered psychologist working with Healthspan – reveals why acts of kindness can benefit our physical and mental health
‘Kindness is a gift everyone can afford to give’ – especially if it benefits your health.
In a world that has been sieged by a war, climate change and a public health pandemic, acts of kindness have proven invaluable and heart-warming, plus, there is a growing body of research to show its many health benefits.
Kindness is linked to increased feelings of well-being it can help reduce isolation, help build self-esteem and it can also provide people with a different perspective which in turn can build a more positive outlook on life.
people may even live longer as kindness can also help reduce stress and improve our emotional wellbeing
There is also research to show that people may even live longer as kindness can also help reduce stress and improve our emotional wellbeing.
There are many different ways of being kind from volunteering at a local community organisation to keeping an eye on a neighbour or mentoring someone who needs help.
Find a cause that you are passionate about and something you will enjoy.
It is important not to take too much on and if we find we are giving too much of ourselves or have gone beyond our means, it’s probably time to take a step back. Leave enough for you – kindness has to start with yourself.
Kindness and brain health
It’s cool to be kind…the research tells us so.
Being kind to ourselves and others improves happiness levels and gives us a warm glow, but is kindness also good for the brain? And if so, are we simply born kind and if not, can we cultivate kindness and its health benefits?
Kindness – born to be kind?
Research that aims to disentangle nature from nurture generally compares identical with non-identical twins who have grown up in different environments.
When investigating kindness, we tend to look at a broad range of behaviours within the umbrella term ‘prosocial behaviour’, which includes sharing, helping, cooperating, donating, comforting and feeling empathy towards others.
One twin study looking at this prosocial personality type found that genetics accounted for 69 per cent of this kind of behaviour, demonstrating that some people may be predisposed to kindness – but importantly there is also room for learning this socially beneficial behaviour.
Kindness and brain plasticity
Therefore, even if we are born with a tendency to be kind, the twin studies do still show a portion of someone’s kindness is due to their upbringing, environment and sociocultural influences.
Indeed, the neural pathways in our brains are malleable throughout life, not just in early childhood which was once the prevailing view. This means at any point in life we can form new connections in the brain, which in turn can help protect both mental and physical health.
Loneliness and isolation are significant factors when it comes to neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia, yet by exercising our prosocial muscles with kindness, we can connect with others and limit the harmful impact of social isolation.
Can kindness really be taught in adulthood? Evidence from loving-kindness meditation
One way to cultivate kindness is with a form of meditation practice called ‘loving-kindness’, which focuses on self-generated feelings of kindness, love, compassion, and goodwill toward oneself and others.
There have been some fascinating results from studies that have looked at this type of self-contemplative exercise, including increases in telomere length (a marker of biological aging) and increased vagal tone (reflecting superior functioning of the vagus nerve).
Both of these findings have important consequences for overall health and brain health, particularly considering that anyone can do this type of meditation and it’s completely free.
READ MORE: 10 ways to improve mental health at work
Simple loving-kindness meditation that you can do at home
- Start by sitting or lying down, whichever is more comfortable and convenient for you, with your eyes closed if this is possible.
- Next, focus on your breath but allow the inhale and exhale to be natural – there’s no need for complex breathing exercises here – however focus your attention on the rhythm of your breath.
- Next, bring to mind someone who has been kind to you in the past – so that a smile forms on your lips when you think of the person. Bring to mind all their individualities, those little details that make them who they are, this special person who has shown you kindness and compassion.
- Now, repeat a phrase such as ‘I wish for warmth, safety, good health and a life full of love and kindness’, thinking of this person all the while. You can change this phrase to suit you, just ensure it is full of kindness and goodwill.
- Next, swap places and in your mind’s eye, and have your supporter say these words to you.
- Whatever emotions come up for you, allow them to exist. You may experience a range of emotions, some of which may feel rather awkward, but grant them permission to wash over you, without judgement.
- Finally, take one last focused breath and re-enter the present by opening your eyes and/or gently moving your body.
To find out more check out: mentalhealth.org.uk