November 13th is World Kindness Day, and with it, the seven days of kindness challenge. Do you remember how you felt the last time you experienced a “random act of kindness?” Ever had a stranger give you a compliment that made your day? When did you last give that universal little wave of thanks when another driver let you in on a busy street? Even in these challenging times, kindness is all around us, and the wonderful feeling of human connection through kindness is needed more than ever. The science of kindness is a rapidly evolving field encompassing several disciplines, and to make it even more complicated, it also touches on some of the biggest questions about ethics, morality, and what it means to be human. Where once the assumption was that humans are fundamentally competitive and selfish, more science is showing us that humans (and many non-human animals, too) may instead be fundamentally wired to be kind and compassionate. Even better, kindness can be taught, learned, and practiced daily for some amazing health benefits!
Many scientists have wrestled seriously with the question of kindness and compassion and why it exists. Charles Darwin wondered, if life was about the survival of the fittest, why then did animals sometimes act in an altruistic manner: sacrificing their own personal gain to help others, even those not related to them? Darwin’s answer was the idea of “inclusive fitness.” For example, a bee may sacrifice itself for the queen, and that sacrifice will help the entire hive to survive to reproduce. Darwin’s concept of inclusive fitness helped explain that altruism does have reason to exist, and further exploration of WHY it exists was taken up in the 1960’s by researcher Richard Dawkins. In his landmark book The Selfish Gene, he theorized that altruistic behaviors are wired into us by evolution because throwing yourself in front of a lion to protect your children helps your genes to survive, not because any inherent morality tells us to protect the weak. This is why kind behaviors are still selected for and exist today, but deep down everything we do is self-interested even if it appears kind and selfless.
For years it has been generally accepted that human kindness is a thin veneer over our animal nature, and most of animal nature is selfish and competitive. In the 21st century, there are growing numbers of scientists and thinkers who see that there is much more to the story of human kindness and compassion than once thought, and the concept of humans as fundamentally self-interested competitors may not be completely accurate. Kindness and compassion appear to have numerous health benefits, right down to the molecular level, that go far beyond mere survival.
The field of neuroscience especially has shown that our brains and bodies are deeply oriented towards kindness. Dr. Dacher Keltner, head of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, has shown that our brains are designed to release a burst of oxytocin, “the love hormone,” from even small acts of kindness. In fact, it has been recently proven that we have a network in our brain called “mirror cells” that literally predisposes us to empathy on the cellular level. The GGSC studies show that over time, through just one act of kindness a day, participants were able to increase their overall life satisfaction and decrease chronic pain, partly because kindness releases feel-good hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin and helps lower inflammatory hormones like cortisol. People who did Buddhist Loving-Kindness meditations for just 8 weeks, sending out unconditional love to the world each day, were even found to have longer telomeres, the part of DNA that is thought to control aging. From the results, it has been theorized that daily kindness is just as much a predictor of health as smoking, and Dr. Keltner theorizes that a life focused on kindness could increase lifespan as much as six to ten years!
Recent science has proven that kindness is one of the only things in the world that doubles when you share it: kindness releases a boost of endorphins and hormones in the giver and receiver alike! Just seven days of kind acts were seen to have a significant benefit on subjects’ stress levels, overall sense of wellbeing, and even chronic pain. How can you share in the benefits of kindness? Fortunately, researchers indicate that it can be learned and practiced just like any skill. You don’t have to do something grand like paying off your neighbor’s mortgage to get the health benefits of altruism, and you don’t have to be born a saint to be kind each day. In Dr. Keltner’s study, small things like paying off an expired meter, helping someone carry something, or even a great, genuine compliment are enough to start accruing the health benefits of kindness. The potential for kind and helpful acts is everywhere, but it’s not always easy to know what to do or how to do it. We know that your own body rewards you tremendously for being kind, just as it does when you exercise. So why not practice building your “kindness muscle” and challenge yourself for seven days? The Random Acts of Kindness Project, sponsors of World Kindness Day, have a menu of small acts you can do, and many more resources for learning, teaching, and understanding the wonderful – and still mysterious — phenomenon of human kindness.
Follow the links below for suggestions and inspiration. If you’re feeling experimental, try one kind act a day for at least a week, and see how you feel!
The Random Acts of Kindness Project (Sponsors of World Kindness Day) webpage with suggestions for a Seven-day kindness challenge: https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/kindness-ideas
The Basics of Altruism in Nature: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKtOXvA14X4
An animated summary of The Selfish Gene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gE_IPTXznM
Richard Dawkins discussing Altruism & The Selfish Gene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8C-ntwUpzM
Mental and Physical Benefits of Kindness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciVdg5O2b-w
Frans De Waal TED talk about Morality in Animals: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnnSjdpoBVw
Dacher Keltner TED talk on Empathy and Compassion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsFxWSuu_4I