The Mental Health Awareness Week theme of Kindness, is right up Dr. David R. Hamilton’s street. He writes books and educates people in how they can harness their mind and emotions to improve their health, with a special interest in the effects of kindness on the body. He worked in the pharmaceutical industry as an organic chemist developing drugs for cardiovascular disease and cancer. Inspired by the placebo effect, he left the industry after 4 years to spread the word about the mind-body connection.
Here are a few of the health benefits of kindness that Dr. Hamilton has identified. It’s clear that kindness not only generates a good feeling, it impacts our brain and body in a very real way.
1) Kindness supports the immune system
Research shows that being kind, and even just watching others displaying kindness, boosts levels of an important antibody known as “secretory immunoglobulin A”. The boost in levels of this antibody is switched on by how kindness feels to us. It doesn’t matter whether you are being kind or observing kindness, the feeling is the same. You can therefore boost your immune system by watching and sharing video clips or stories of acts of kindness and compassion.
2) Compassion decreases inflammation
A study that used the Tibetan Buddhist’s “Loving Kindness Compassion” meditation found that kindness and compassion was able to reduce inflammation in the body most likely due to its effects on the vagus nerve.
3) Being kind gives us a natural high
On a biochemical level, it is believed that the good feeling we get when we are compassionate or kind is due to elevated levels of the brain’s natural versions of morphine and heroin, known as endogenous opioids. They increase the levels of dopamine in the brain and so we get a natural high, often referred to as ‘Helper’s High’.
4) Kindness lowers blood pressure, protects the heart and slows down the ageing process
Acts of kindness are often accompanied by emotional warmth. Emotional warmth produces the hormone oxytocin, in the brain and throughout the body. Oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide in blood vessels, which dilates the blood vessels and in turn reduces blood pressure. This is why oxytocin is known as a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. Acts of kindness can produce oxytocin and therefore kindness can be said to be cardioprotective.
Studies have shown that oxytocin also reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardiovascular system. Free radicals and inflammation (both of which result from making unhealthy lifestyle choices) are known to speed up the ageing process. Oxytocin, produced by the warm and fuzzy feeling we get from being kind, could therefor slow ageing at the source.
6) Kindness supports good mental health
The impact of a kind gesture on someone with depression, or the good feeling you get when you do something nice for someone else, is not just psychological. Brain imaging studies indicate that kind and compassionate feelings cause physical changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain – the area associated with positive emotion. The area grows, just as a muscle would when exercised, with repeated acts of kindness or compassion. As a result it becomes easier to access the positive emotions area of the brain which in turn makes it easier to have a positive outlook. It is no wonder kindness was chosen as the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week.
If you would like to know more about the work of Dr. Hamilton, visit his website or watch his TEDx Talk – Why Kindness is Good for You here. You can also sign up for his FREE course on the power of kindness here.