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The kindness strategy to achieve happiness

3rd March 2018 | Beverly Landais

At a time when dark and selfish behaviour dominates the news, it is uplifting to see the kindness of the human heart in action. I checked in with my elderly mother last night. She lives in Wales. I live in Kent. I am fortunate that she has family members nearby who look out for her. My mother explained that a woman that she barely knew had just stopped by with a bag of shopping. She just wanted to be sure my mother had supplies to see her through a weekend of snow.

Where I live in Tunbridge Wells, I see people helping each other out in all sorts of ways: clearing pathways, helping people to cross on icy roads, sharing provisions and giving lifts to those who can't get out. One of my neighbours is a marathon runner. He has been jogging in the freezing snow to the local shops to buy goods for elderly neighbours. In shorts. Respect.

What I have noticed is that despite the weather disruptions, people seem more cheerful, exchanging smiles and being supportive. I began to think about the boomerang effect that happens when you perform an act of kindness. By focusing on the needs of others, you increase your ability to connect with them. In turn, this builds empathy resulting in stronger bonds and friendships based on shared experiences. The Oxford English Dictionary defines kindness as “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.” It seems that even small acts of kindness can increase your sense of self-worth and improve your ability to relate to others. Demonstrating compassion and selfless acts can make life not only more liveable but also more enjoyable.

David R. Hamilton, PhD is the author of The Five Side Effects of Kindness. He has researched the effect of kindness on the human brain. He writes: “Being kind, receiving kindness or witnessing kindness makes us feel ‘elevated’. It’s the term psychologists use for the warm feeling we get. Studies show that elevation inspires people to be kind. So, when a person receives some kindness or even witnesses kindness, they feel elevated, and in turn, become kind themselves. Elevation is the feeling that causes kindness to be contagious.”  What this means is that one good deed in a crowded area can create a domino effect and improve the day of dozens of people. Acts of kindness increase the generosity of spirit in all of us meaning there is more to go around.

What is more, it is good for your health to practice kindness. Dr Hamilton explains that the emotional warmth that we feel when giving or receiving consideration produces the hormone oxytocin in the brain and throughout the body. Of recent interest is its significant role in the cardiovascular system. Oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide in blood vessels, which dilates (expands) the blood vessels. This reduces blood pressure, and therefore oxytocin is known as a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone because it protects the heart (by lowering blood pressure). The key is that acts kindness can produce oxytocin and therefore kindness can be said to be cardioprotective.

A recent report from the Carnegie UK Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation also highlights that kindness is literally at the heart of well-being. Written by Zoë Ferguson, a Carnegie Associate and published in July 2017, the report focuses on what can be done to encourage kinder workplaces and build more compassionate communities. Ms Ferguson’s report sets out a compelling argument for making stronger communities and supporting individual resilience by creating welcoming places, encouraging informal opportunities and cherishing the values of kindness.

The independent charity, Action for Happiness, observes that positive emotions - like joy, interest, pride and gratitude - don't just feel pleasant now - they also affect our long-term well-being. Research shows that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio to negative ones leads to a tipping point beyond which we naturally become more resilient to adversity and better able to achieve things. The science behind this shows that when we give to others, it activates the areas of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust. Such altruistic behaviour releases endorphins in the brain and boosts happiness for us as well as the people we help. So, if you want to be happy, be kind.

Here are some simple ideas from Action for Happiness to try for yourself:

Kindness can be simple such as a smile, a thank-you or a word of encouragement. It doesn't have to cost anything or take much time. What is important is that it's an act of genuine care and thoughtfulness for another person.

Kind acts can be spur of the moment, like when we notice someone in need. For example, we might give up our seat on the train or pick up and return someone's glove when they drop it. Opportunities to be kind pop up all over the place - like handing on a newspaper we've finished reading, paying for someone’s coffee or passing on an unused ticket.

Kindness can bring civility to the workplace. It is not about being ‘soft’ or fudging issues. It is about dealing with others as you wish to them to deal with you. Next time you are tempted to shoot down an idea in flames or criticise someone in public, stop and think what it will achieve. If correction is needed, do this in a constructive manner and with kindness. You will be surprised how even most difficult conversation can go better if you approach it compassionately.

Kind acts can be thought through in advance - planning to do something for a friend, neighbour or loved one or because we want to spread some daily joy. There are unlimited ways to be kind to others - we only need to keep your eyes open and pay attention to those around us to start seeing opportunities to help.

Why not set yourself a 30-day challenge to do one act of kindness a day? Action for Happiness has a kindness calendar which is a brilliant resource if you want to give it a try. Make kindness your strategy to achieve happiness. 

Remember: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted” – Aesop. 

Sources:

  1. Click here for information about The Five Side Effects of Kindness by David R. Hamilton, PhD
  2. Click here to download Ms Ferguson’s Report entitled ‘The Place of Kindness: Combating loneliness and building stronger communities.
  3. Click here to read more and download the Action for Happiness Ten 10 Keys to Happier Living. 

3rd March 2018 | Beverly Landais

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