Rediscovering the Compassion Instinct
During the last year with less of the usual demands assailing our every waking hour, we might have noticed we are thinking about our elderly relatives more, or thanking the postman for delivering our mail. We might dismiss these gestures as the product of simply having more time on our hands but we may as also notice a ‘feel-good rush’ associated with them – it may just be that we are feeling the positive effects of being kind.
Despite the prevalence of notions of ‘survival of the fittest’ in our busy, modern lives, evolutionary psychologists postulate that we are all born with a ‘Compassion Instinct’ as one of the strongest drives which has helped humankind survive and flourish. Our nervous systems have evolved over time to have a highly tuned sensitivity to caring about others and so it seems the desire to do good is hard-wired in us. Lockdown is merely giving many of us the time to re-discover this desire.
Besides improving personal relationships, evidence shows that being kind to others is beneficial for our own mental and physical health and wellbeing. When we are kind, our bodies and minds know it. Here’s how:
Building relationships reduces our stress
During the current crisis, we are all looking for helpful ways to de-stress. If we fancy a break from the mindfulness apps on our computers and phones, the most basic way of decreasing stress in our lives is by connecting with others through kind deeds. Kindness and empathy help us to have more positive relationships and to meet our basic psychological needs of relatedness and belonging. Studies have found that engaging in ‘prosocial behaviour’ – action intended to help others – reduces the impact of stress on emotional functioning. Social distancing might be difficult for many of us at the moment, but the reward we get from the feeling that by maintaining these social rules we are keeping other people safe is invaluable.
More ‘positive affect’ eases our social anxiety
Social anxiety is associated with low ‘positive affect’ – an individual’s experience of positive moods such as joy, interest, and alertness. With most socialising happening via video conferencing right now, this kind of anxiety is only likely to increase. However, psychologists have found engaging in kind acts leads to a significant increase in positive moods which in turn can reduce social anxiety. So, if we’re feeling a little anxious at the thought of another Zoom meeting, an act of kindness such as checking that our elderly neighbours have the shopping they need for the week ahead can create the positive mindset we need to make it happen.
Doing nice things for others releases our happy chemicals
Neuroimaging techniques have found that neural pathways related to reward are activated when people engage in actions intended to help others. Being kind activates the pleasure centres in our brain, boosting our serotonin levels – the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of satisfaction and well-being. Like exercise, altruism also releases endorphins, a phenomenon known as a ‘helper’s high’; and studies have also linked random acts of kindness to releasing dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain that can give us a feeling of euphoria.
Kindness helps us live longer
Doing good now can have significant long-term effects on our bodies, enabling us to live longer. By boosting our ‘love hormone’ oxytocin, kindness strengthens our hearts physically and emotionally without having to go to the gym. Alongside playing a vital role in forming social bonds and trusting other people, oxytocin is also known as a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. This is because it protects the heart by releasing a chemical called nitric oxide which expands our blood vessels and reduces blood pressure. Oxytocin also reduces inflammation, which is associated with several health conditions including diabetes, chronic pain and migraines.
Being kind to ourselves
Perhaps many of us before the current crisis were quite proficient at being kind to other people, but not so good when it came to being kind to ourselves. Well lockdown has given us a chance to redress this balance. It is important for us to realise that our own inner voice can impact our mental and physical wellbeing. When we are kind to ourselves, the same regions in our brains light up as if we are receiving kindness from another person. Changing our inner voice to a kind, self-compassionate tone comes with a wealth of benefits from building resilience, optimism and a healthier stress response, to reducing anxiety and rumination.