The theme set by the Mental Health Foundation for Mental Health Week 2020, is kindness. During the time of lockdown due to COVID-19, we have seen many acts of kindness to support our front-line workers. Mental Health Week could be seen as celebrating these acts and recognising the impact of kindness on people’s mental health. However, research is showing the impact of Kindness is far more ranging on Mental Health.
How Kindness improves Mental Health
Kindness improves mood
When we carry out an act of kindness for someone else it makes us feel good. This can provide us with a sense of self-worth, which over a number of acts can improve our belief in ourselves. When we do not believe in ourselves, we can experience anxiety in carrying out tasks and depression as we feel we are failing. By carrying out acts of kindness, we increase our self-worth and therefore reduce our anxiety and/or depression.
Kindness fosters self-care
The benefit of increased self-worth can lead to a feeling of purpose. Research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlighted that people took better care of themselves by practising preventative health care when they felt they had a sense of purpose for their life.
And it was found that it got easier with practice, the same as muscles getting stronger the more regularly we use them. Hamilton said “It’s about training your behaviour and in turn, your neural circuits. When kindness becomes a habit, we start to produce ‘happy chemicals,’ like dopamine and oxytocin, more consistently, and that makes us feel good.”
Good feelings from kindness are natural
So, the good feelings are not random but linked to Dopamine released in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which supports many activities including movement, memory, pleasurable reward, and mood. Research has found that we like surprises and our body reacts with additional dopamine when surprised by something we like. Therefore, a present randomly in the year will have more effect than the presents we expect on our birthday.
Kindness is contagious
These good feelings create a positive feedback loop, as we want to repeat those good feelings. This additionally means one good act to another person, causes a ripple effect of good acts to other people, meaning our Mental Health is uplifted along with many others.
A study recorded an example where an anonymous 28-year-old person walked into a clinic and donated a kidney. It set off a ‘pay it forward’ type ripple effect where the spouses or other family members of recipients of a kidney donated one of theirs to someone else in need. The ‘domino effect’, as it was called in the New England Journal of Medicine report, spanned the length and breadth of the United States of America, where 10 people received a new kidney as a consequence of that anonymous donor.
Kindess is good for relationships
While kindness is contagious, it brings us closer, reducing the distance between us as we carry out activities that help someone else. Relationships with family and friends are important for mental health, as we use them to:
- discuss our concerns and potentially realise they are not as big as we feel
- know we are not alone in what we are going through
- discuss ways of getting through what is currently happening in our lives
- be signposted to professional help
Relationships are also important for lifting our moods through different enjoyable experiences..
Kindness is good for heart
Dopamine is not the only chemical released when we feel good, we also get Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins. Oxytocin is released by the hypothalamus which is a small region at the base of the brain. Research suggests it causes the release of nitric oxide in blood vessels that cause them to dilate and atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) which causes the heart to slow. The dilation of the blood vessels will reduce your blood pressure, which coupled with slow heart rate will reduce the pressure on the heart.
Kindness slows ageing
The heart and how we age, are impacted by many things, but inflammation will increase the rate at which we age. Mild inflammation can be caused by an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants. Free radicals are the by-product of our metabolic processes where a molecule is left with one or more unpaired electron. Antioxidants are the substance that neutralises the free radicals by donating an electron. When there is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants, it is known as Oxidative Stress. It is believed in small amounts it is good for us, but in the long term, it could be the cause of various serious illnesses. The latest research has shown the Oxytocin had a significant impact on reducing the levels of Oxidative Stress in the body.
Kindness helps with healing
While Oxytocin can impact ageing, Serotonin has an impact on healing. Serotonin another chemical involved as a neurotransmitter has been found to regulate the body including mood, social behaviour, appetite, digestion, sleep, and memory. It is believed low levels of Serotonin may be linked to depression, with a commonly prescribed antidepressant stopping the body absorbing Serotonin, causing the levels to increase in the body and peoples mood. Therefore, Serotonin is nicknamed the happy drug.
Kindness reduces depression, anxiety, and stress
So, by carrying out acts of kindness, you are triggering the release of the ‘Happy Drug’ which will calm you down, reducing your stress and improve your mood, by reducing the feelings of depression.
Kindness reduced pain
The final chemical to consider is endorphins. Endorphin comes from the word ‘endogenous’ meaning from with the body and ‘morphine’ which is an opiate pain reliever. So, endorphins got their name as a natural pain reliever. Endorphins minimize discomfort, pain, and maximise pleasure. Therefore, an act of kindness can reduce the level of pain we are experiencing.
Kindness improves the immune system
If you put all of these things together and consider the growing research which shows how we feel positively impacts our immune system ability to ward off infection and improve the speed of recovery.
What kind acts are you going to do today?
As kindness can have so many impacts on our Mental Health, what acts of kindness will you carry out today?
Take a look at Random Acts of Kindness Foundations for many different ideas
The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation have a range of printable resources.
You can print a factsheet on the positive impact of kindness from the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation.
The BBC has information on what is random acts of kindness and ideas that children could carry.
The Red Cross have resources for children to learn about kindness and a printable calendar to track the act of kindness they have done each day. Take a look and start recording.
Sources of information
Why Do We Need Endorphins? Accessed 21/05/2020
The Science of Kindness Accessed 21/05/2020
The 5 Side Effects of Kindness Accessed 21/05/2020
The heart and science of kindness Accessed 21/05/2020
The Positive Effects of Kindness On Our Mental Health Accessed 21/05/2020
Why being kind makes you healthier Accessed 21/05/2020
Mental Health Awareness Week 2020: The importance of being kind Accessed 21/05/2020
Why Do We Need Endorphins? Accessed 21/05/2020
What is serotonin and what does it do? Accessed 21/05/2020
How does oxidative stress affect the body? Accessed 21/05/2020
Human brain gets a kick out of surprises Accessed 21/05/2020