Zip those negative thoughts and show a bit of kindness to feel all warm and fuzzy, and reap some health benefits.
Aviation pioneer, Amelia Earhart once said: “No kind action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.”
Earhart’s theory has been given the thumbs up by modern science, proving it’s not just a sappy ideal for the utopians among us, but verified truth. A joint study out of the University of California and Harvard University tested our inclination to put the kind in humankind, proving that kind acts ripple outward exponentially. In the study, people were divided into small groups and given 20 credits each. Players could keep the credits or contribute them to a fund that would be multiplied by two-fifths and then divided amongst everyone at the end of the round. The catch was no-one knew what their fellow players were going to do so it was tempting to be greedy and mooch off the generosity of others. At the end of the game, when all was revealed, if someone was generous, the credits flowed a lot more freely over the next rounds.
Obviously kindness is a pretty good deal for the receiver but kindness also benefits the giver and anyone who witnesses a kind act, making it the holy trinity of wins. Being kind improves social connection, increases wellbeing, boosts endorphins and even leads to greater physical health.
A cure for what ails you
Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina was the lead researcher on a recent study that found kindness is quite literally good for your heart. Study participants practiced the Buddhist ‘loving-kindness meditation’, which involves cultivating feelings of warmth, kindness and love towards yourself and others. Participants silently repeated phrases like, “May you feel safe, may you feel happy, may you feel healthy, may you live with ease.” This led to a boost in positive emotions like joy, hope and serenity and a greater sense of connection to others. More surprisingly, Frederickson and her colleagues noted a measurable difference in the function and tone of the vagus nerve. A greater vagal tone lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and decreases inflammation, among other things. “The biggest news is that we’re able to change something physical about people’s health by increasing their daily diet of positive emotion, and that helps us get at a long-standing mystery of how our emotional and social experience affects our physical health,” says Fredrickson. There is a hitch though. The research found that just doing the meditation wasn’t enough. If the practice didn’t bring about a positive emotional state, then it didn’t have the same physical benefits. In other words you can’t fake it – you have to feel the love, man.
Kindness feels good
Another way to boost the warm-fuzzies is through actual physical kind acts in the world. According to the Dalai Lama, the key to happiness is giving happiness to others. In his book, The Art of Happiness, he gives this simple recipe for joy: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Committing random acts of kindness has become a worldwide movement with organisations all over the globe dedicated to spreading the love. Brooke Jones, vice president of the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, says that practising kindness has changed her life in so many ways. “I made a choice when I was in my teenage years that I was going to change my outlook on life and create a positive bubble around myself. The only way I knew how to do that was by committing acts of kindness whenever and wherever possible,” says Jones.
The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation encourages people to pass on the compassion contagion, providing resources, ideas and inspiration for kind acts. Jones says, “It has changed my life in so many ways, but mostly it has made me grateful for the little things,” she says. “I have learned to see the good in others even when it may not be obvious. I have made a conscious effort to look for the positive in any situation and it has relieved so much stress and unnecessary pain in my life.”
Where to begin
We can all do something to spread the kindness contagion. Jones says to start with the simple things. “It doesn’t have to be complicated,” she says. “Compliment someone. Stop and look at those around you and ask yourself how you might be able to make their day a little brighter. Find just one thing you can do every day to spread a bit of joy in your world.”
In June the challenge was thrown down for people to do something kind every day. Eric Ernerstedt, a participant in the 30 days of kindness challenge, says committing to a kind act every day left him feeling inspired and empowered. “I most definitely think that being kind can affect one’s happiness. When you look inside yourself to find a kind act that inspires, and maybe even challenges you, and you do it, it has a surprisingly fulfilling effect.” Over the 30 days Ernerstedt gave away a lottery ticket, bought gifts of gratitude to those close to him, gave away a little extra money to homeless people, bought coffees for people in line behind him, gave apples to some cows and left nice notes for people to find – but not everyone was appreciative of his gestures. He says the most interesting random acts of kindness were those where the reaction was negative – like when the woman he let in front of him in line at the supermarket became annoyed. Far from being discouraged however, Eric says this was a good lesson in being kind for its own sake, rather than expecting certain results or reactions.
If you can master the art of kindness, happiness is sure to follow – not to mention the domino effect of kind acts spreading through space and time. A kinder (and happier) world is possible.
Simple recipes for powerful love bombs
Coffee shout: Anonymously pay for the coffee of the person behind you. Wake someone up with both kindness and a caffeine injection.
Share baked goods: Bake something sweet and delicious to share with friends or coworkers.
Lend a helping hand: Our animal friends need love too. Maybe there is a shelter near you that could use a hand, or maybe you have space in your home to save a life.
For more ideas, resources and inspiration visit randomactsofkindness.org.