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5 ways acts of kindness boost your brain health

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Helping an elderly person with an errand, volunteering in a soup kitchen, giving up your seat in the bus, or paying for a stranger’s coffee are a few acts of kindness you may have offered or received in your life. Kindness feels good, whether you are the receiver or the doer. Your brain reaps the benefits of kindness too. This World Kindness Day, learn about how kindness can make you live longer, healthier, and happier

Kindness promotes a long and healthy life

The science of kindness reveals that being kind can help you live healthier for longer. It was found that those who engaged in volunteering activities had lower inflammatory compounds than those who didn’t [1]. This also highlights the importance of kindness to oneself. Being self-compassionate and kind to yourself also decreases inflammatory compounds [2]. 

Kindness towards your family, friends, and people around you promote healthy social connections. Studies involving over 300,000 people reported that those with strong social relationships are 50% more likely to live a longer life [3]. Positive social connections improve stress response and aid in establishing healthy behaviours.

Kindness helps you de-stress

Stress is associated with many negative health outcomes. You can read more about the impact of stress on the brain here. Being kind creates positive and supportive connections and fulfills a basic need for compassion. In this way, it can buffer stress [4]. Just like wearing protective equipment while cycling buffers the impact of falls, random acts of kindness buffer the stress of everyday life. Over 300 participants who were trained to be more compassionate as a stress reduction technique, found that their stress hormone, cortisol decreased by 51% as a result [5]. Cortisol levels  must be maintained in low amounts for optimal brain functioning. 

Kindness makes you happier

It is accepted that being kind and generous feels good. Brain scans of people who used their money to benefit others showed greater activity in brain areas involved in happiness [6]. These people also reported feeling happier after the donation. Participants assigned to perform 3 acts of kindness once a day for 2 weeks reported an increase in positive mood [7]. Happiness experienced was higher when the act of kindness was self-motivated [8]. Satisfying the needs of familiarity, competence, and self-motivation improves mental well-being [9]. Helping a friend (familiarity) may also involve a memorable time spent together. Being competent enough to help and the self-motivated decision to help fulfil the needs for optimal feel-good effect. Being kind and forming a positive social connection also releases oxytocin (also called love hormone), which increases dopamine production [12].

Kindness gives you “helper’s high”

Kindness activates your dopamine system, the reward and pleasure system that is activated by good food and pleasurable activities. Brain imaging showed that donating money activated the dopamine system, contributing to the feel-good “high” experienced after a kind deed [10]. Dopamine is also involved in regulating motivation, thus encouraging continued acts of kindness. In an interesting study, a medication that increases dopamine levels in the brain was provided to participants before being asked to split money between themselves and a stranger. Those that were medicated displayed more kindness and were more likely to split the money equally [11]. 

Kindness decreases anxiety 

Being kind can also help reduce the feelings of social anxiety. Anxious participants engaging in acts of kindness for 4 weeks reported improvement in mood and decrease in anxiety symptoms [13]. Even internally thinking kind thoughts and wishing people well in social situations help lower anxiety [14]. Improved social connection and increase in feel-good brain chemicals can contribute to this effect.

Being kind is a simple and effective way to feel better. This November 13th, on World Kindness Day, make a conscious effort to be more kind to others and to yourself. Your brain will thank you. 

References:

  1. Breines, J. G. et al. (2014). Self-compassion as a predictor of interleukin-6 response to acute psychosocial stress. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 37, 109–114.
  2. Holt-Lunstad, J. et al. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Medicine, [online] 7(7).
  3. Bell, M. et al. (2022). Volunteer Engagement and Systemic Inflammation: Does Helping Others Benefit Oneself?. The Gerontologist. Advance online publication.
  4. Fryburg, D.A. (2021). Kindness as a Stress Reduction–Health Promotion Intervention: A Review of the Psychobiology of Caring. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, p.155982762098826.
  5. Engert, V. et al. (2017). Specific reduction in cortisol stress reactivity after social but not attention-based mental training. Science advances3(10)
  6. Park, S. Q. (2017). A neural link between generosity and happiness. Nature communications8, 15964.
  7. Nelson, S.K., Layous, K., Cole, S.W. and Lyubomirsky, S. (2016). Do unto others or treat yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused
  8. Weinstein, N., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). When helping helps: Autonomous motivation for prosocial behavior and its influence on well-being for the helper and recipient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(2), 222–244.
  9. Allen, S. (2018). The Science of Generosity. Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. [online] 
  10. van der Linden, S. (2011). “The helper's high: Why it feels so good to give”. Ode Magazine 86: 8, 6, 26-27. 
  11. Sáez, I. et al. (2015). Dopamine Modulates Egalitarian Behavior in Humans. Current Biology, 25(7), pp.912–919. 
  12. Mathers N. (2016). Compassion and the science of kindness: Harvard Davis Lecture 2015. The British journal of general practice : the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners66(648), e525–e527. 
  13. Alden, L. E., & Trew, J. L. (2013). If it makes you happy: engaging in kind acts increases positive affect in socially anxious individuals. Emotion (Washington, D.C.)13(1), 64–75.
  14. Gentile, D.A. et al. (2019). Caring for Others Cares for the Self: An Experimental Test of Brief Downward Social Comparison, Loving-Kindness, and Interconnectedness Contemplations. Journal of Happiness Studies.


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