It’s super cool to be kind

People who are more empathetic tend to also be kinder. But like all personality traits, it’s a combination of nature and nurture that makes us kind, according to Dr Jamil Zaki, a neuroscientist at Stanford University.

This means that if you are not being kind enough already, it’s never too late to start – and given that scientific research shows it’s also good for you, it’s a win-win situation.

When we are kind, our brain responds by releasing a chemical called oxytocin (the ‘bonding’ hormone that makes us feel good). The oxytocin helps us feel pleasure in the act and then we are drawn to doing it again because the brain is motivated to repeat the experience. This can become a cycle which results in us being kinder more frequently. As well as this, scientists have found that people who are nice regularly, have less of the stress hormone cortisol in their systems. And to top it up, kindness towards others also boosts both serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain (neurotransmitters that are very much associated with feeling good). Being kind really is a very good way to boost mental health.

Not only do these altruistic acts make us feel better mentally, but they are also good for our overall health as a study in Canada on high school children showed.

A group of older children were given the task of tutoring elementary school children for two months, whilst a similar sized group was used as a control group (i.e. doing no tutoring). After the tutoring was over, the two groups of teenagers were given blood tests to see if there were any changes which the scientists could put down to the altruistic act. What they found was fascinating: Group 1 (the tutors) were found to have lower levels of cholesterol and lower levels of inflammatory markers in their blood. Both of these factors are known to be good for the heart and the lower inflammatory markers also mean that the body is better equipped to fight viruses.

“There’s nothing surprising in the fact that kindness and altruism should impact our physical wellbeing”, says a San Diego State University Neuroscientist, Tristen Inagaki. “Humans are extremely social, we have better health when we are interconnected and a part of being interconnected is giving”.

As well as benefits to the heart and mind, kindness clearly also benefits society - and you can make a difference because it’s contagious. That might sound odd but it’s true and according to Dr Zaki, a possible explanation is: “people value being on the same page with others… as such, when people learn that others act kindly, they might come to value kindness more themselves”.

So why not start now? First and foremost, be kind to yourself; neglecting your own needs to be kind to others is never a good idea. Once those boundaries are established, you can start with little acts of kindness like smiling at someone, calling up a friend who could do with a chat, commenting on someone’s Instagram post to give them a boost (you know how nice it is when you get social media attention). Any small act of kindness benefits both you and the person at the receiving end.

Further reading:

Kindness Contagion - Scientific American

Why Being Kind Helps You, Too—Especially Now - WSJ

Being kind to others does make you 'slightly happier' | University of Oxford

Why being kind to others is good for your health - BBC Future

Psychology of kindness | AXA Health