This week is Random Acts of Kindness Day – another of those manufactured days that we shouldn’t really need a “day” for. However, I believe it is worth taking some time out to think about how we interact with others and how kind or unkind we are. And what if being kind was actually good for you?
We have all been taught the “golden rule”:
Treat others the way you want to be treated,
But the “platinum rule” is:
Treating others the way they would like to be treated.
This sounds like a beautifully altruistic approach but, could being kind to others be good for us? As children, we are biologically wired to be kind, then as we grow we lose focus on kindness because we are kept so busy keeping all the plates spinning of our busy lives. We use all our energy on just getting through the day. But if we focus some of that energy back on practicing and repeating kindness we can rediscover and develop it.
Last year I started to look at ways that I could help others more, and the effect was really interesting. I have always done a bit for charity, but 2018 got me on a path of doing a LOT more. I became patron of a charity that supports victims of domestic abuse, I did a Speakathon on International Women’s Day. I did the Moon Walk for cancer research, and started to arrange another event for the charity. People asked me why I was putting so much effort into these things to which I replied that “They felt like the right thing to do” which is true. But, I also began to realise that doing these things were making me feel good in all sorts of ways too. For example, after 23 years of training in the corporate world, it felt good to give things back.
However, I also started to realise that the things I did were predictable, expected, and pretty high profile. I began to wonder, “Where there were other things that could be done that were smaller and off the radar that still had the same impact?”
This thought coincided with Jason Vale (the Juicemaster) sending me a copy of his book Create Magic, which talked about how we could, on a daily basis create magic for strangers, partners, friends and family. He recommended that we looked for opportunities to create small acts of kindness. I found that once I started looking for opportunities for small acts of kindness that they were all around me; a woman struggling with children and a pushchair on the stairs, the man at the station who had forgotten his wallet and couldn’t buy a ticket, that person who looked so down that a kind comment picked them up and made them smile.
As Christmas approached, I decided I wanted to do something to support homeless people in Southampton where I live. So, my children and I, made up 40 bags of sandwiches, Christmas cake, sausage rolls, mince pies, chocolate and water to give out. Some people warned me that homeless people might not appreciate the bags as “They only wanted money for drugs!” Undeterred we went out on Christmas Eve to deliver the parcels.
The reception we got was absolutely incredible. We stopped to talk to many of the people we met and listened to their stories. It changed our whole perspective on homelessness and was a very humbling experience. Since then, on every shopping trip, I will buy sausage rolls, burgers or sandwiches to give to a homeless person.
This experience inspired me to undertake a much bigger challenge for 2019, but more about that later…
So, what actually happens when we are kind to people? The science shows there are some very tangible physical benefits in being kind:
Firstly, the release of feel-good hormones (dopamine and serotonin) react with the pleasure centres in our brains making us feel good. Serotonin is specifically the neurotransmitter responsible for helping create many positive feelings like satisfaction and wellbeing. In fact, there is a name for this phenomenon – called a “helper’s high”.
It has also been proven that being nice to other people can keep anxiety at bay. A study on happiness from the University of British Columbia linked social anxiety with what the scientists called “low Positive Affect (PA)”. They found that having “Low PA” can significantly affect our sense of well-being. The research found that participants who engaged in acts of kindness displayed significant increases in PA and reduced their anxiety levels. These positive effects were sustained for several weeks.
We have all hear the saying “heart-warming” but actually being nice to people can affect the chemical balance of your heart. Being kind to be people also releases the hormone Oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as a “cardioprotective” hormone because it protects the heart. It causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide into the blood. Nitric oxide dilates the blood vessels creating more space for the blood and therefore reducing pressure. Which means that by performing acts of kindness, you could actually be reducing your blood pressure! So perhaps it really is true that kind people have big hearts and big-hearted people will live longer – worth a thought!
Being kind can also help reduce your levels of stress. In our busy lives we are always running around getting anxious about work and business, but helping others helps us take a break from the stress. This break can help is go back to work with a new perspective and better able to handle the stressors we face.
And if all that wasn’t enough to get you smiling at people kindness apparently helps to prevent illness. For example, Oxytocin reduces inflammation which is associated with all sorts of problems in the body such as diabetes, cancer, chronic pain, and migraines. The science suggests that even small doses can make a big difference.
I have focused a lot on what kindness can do to you but clearly the benefit to other people is massive. Sometimes a random act of kindness can change a person’s life – we see evidence of this every day in the news. And it doesn’t have to involve money. Ironically being kind doesn’t demand hard work, it just originates from the simple act of doing no harm to others. So maybe spending a week not judging or criticising people, but noticing all that is good about them and telling them what you have seen might be a good place to start.
“Unconditional love flows through specific channels of respect, integrity, purpose, meaning, value, response-ability, forgiveness, kindness, and compassion — and these form the foundation of our new, naturally ethical lives”
Says author and psychotherapist Loch Kelly in Shift into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness.
Returning now to the big challenge I have set for myself for 2019.
Last week I turned 59 and I tried to think “What would make my years run up to the dreaded 60th birthday feel better?” I decided that in this year I would attempt 60 random acts of kindness, so at least one per week, either large or small. I sincerely hope these acts impact positively on others, that they make a difference, no matter how small to the lives of those around me. I won’t announce or share the acts in any way but I will be keeping a private log of the impact I see and feel.
So, what about you? What could you differently? It shouldn’t really take Random Acts of Kindness days to force us into unconditionally doing something for others. I therefore challenge you to take a look around you to see if you can spot somewhere you could help, something you could do or someone who could do with a boost with a kind word or two.