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Dr Amra Rao

How being kind benefits us psychologically

12 June 2020 | by Dr Amra Rao

The theme of this year's Mental Health Awareness Week was "kindness". But kindness shouldn't just be something we only think about once a year. Being kind to others, and being kind to ourselves, can be good for our psychological wellbeing all year round.

In these strange and troubled times, life for people is filled with anxieties, stresses and uncertainties. Many of us are feeling vulnerable in the face of the loss of human lives, suffering and increased isolation during the lockdown.

The socio-economic impact of this unprecedented global crisis can’t be underestimated. Nor can we ignore the social or racial inequalities that are becoming more visible with far-reaching consequences. That’s why it’s time to connect socially, despite needing to social distance, and be kind not just to others but to ourselves.

There are numerous benefits to being kind:

  • The warm feeling of wellbeing following an act of kindness isn't just in our head. It's in our brain chemicals, too. Studies have indicated the benefits of kindness affecting both the giver and the receiver as it increases positive biochemical responses in humans.

  • Kindness increases oxytocin production, which is said to be responsible for, among other things, increasing feelings of happiness. This may also boost feelings of trust, according to a University of Zurich study, which in turn helps to reduce anxiety and boosts self-esteem.

  • The ‘helper’s high’ brings a biochemical change. Our brain’s pleasure centre lights up as a reward for being kind causing a dopamine rush - a hormone that is strongly associated with feelings of happiness. As a giver, you feel as good as a receiver. According to a University of California, Berkeley study, the ‘helper’s high’ is said to produce enough endorphins to have the same mental effect as a mild morphine high.

  • Kindness may also boost levels of serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for positive mood, overall mood regulation and general wellbeing. It has benefits for memory, learning and brain function.

  • Kindness strengthens our social relationships and connectivity. A Harvard Business School study involving 136 countries found that societies, which were the most charitable and financially generous, had the happiest people.

Being kind is not just scientifically good for you - it allows humility and shared humanity. We need this more than ever to counter increased stress and mental health difficulties in the world.

It is about holding others in mind while staying connected with ourselves too. The latter requires self-compassion, which Kristin Neff focuses on by asking us to consider these three aspects:

  1. Being kind to ourselves rather than critical, being gentle and understanding what we are experiencing

  2. Recognising common human experiences, recognising we are all experiencing similar problems in a way we haven’t before, and allowing ourselves to connect to each other

  3. Being mindful in noticing our suffering, being aware of our emotions

Emily Dickinson speaks about kindness here as an intrinsic part of a meaningful life.

“If I can stop one heart from breaking …I shall not live in vain”

In this same spirit, we need to be kind and raise awareness to make a difference. Heightened stress carries the risk of alienating others.

Vulnerability is a part of human life and sharing it creates social connectivity. The current crisis is telling us clearly that we are connected and dependent on multiple levels. It is time to start now with small acts of kindness, which will in turn inspire others.

In a turbulent world there is more need for humility and kindness more than ever. Fitting with the theme of mental health awareness week, our collective efforts to be kind can help to build better selves and stronger communities.

Dr Amra Rao

Dr Sheelagh Rodgers

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