During childhood, many of us are taught about the importance of kindness.
But are you aware of the different motivations behind kindness and the benefits it can have on yourself?
It’s not uncommon to experience a “feel-good rush” after you’ve been kind to another person, says Dr James Kirby, a lecturer in clinical psychology at The University of Queensland.
“Sometimes people refer to it as the warm glow, and that’s some of the endorphins that are being kicked back into the system, the internal reward system,” he says.
So, is getting a regular rush of these endorphins as simple as just being more kind, more often?
Altruistic vs strategic kindness
A study conducted by psychologists at the University of Sussex in 2018 examined brain scans of more than a thousand participants who were carrying out acts of kindness.
It discovered that people benefit from acts of kindness regardless of whether they are strategically motivated (meaning there is something to be gained from their act of kindness), or altruistic (there is nothing in it for them) — but the “warm glow” effect was at its peak with altruistic acts of kindness.
“We found that there’s a part of the brain that is even more active when we give away [acts of kindness] with no possible benefits for ourselves, so in the altruistic case,” says Jo Cutler, a PhD student who co-authored the study.
“So, this is when that warm glow from kindness will be its strongest, and we saw the brain activity reflecting that.”
The ‘lost letter experiment’
Eager to get a better understanding of kindness, Cyril Gruiter, senior lecturer at University of Western Australia, carried out a ‘lost letter experiment’ in Perth.
It involved dropping letters across different neighbourhoods, including low and high socio-economic suburbs, on two separate occasions.
In the first study, published in 2016, his team dropped 300 letters. In the second study conducted more than a year later, 1,200 letters were dispersed in various areas.
To his surprise, on both occasions, 50 per cent of the letters that were dropped were returned.
“If you encounter a letter on the pavement and you pick it up and you post it, then that obviously means you have to go out of your way, you incur a cost — and that’s exactly how we define altruism, incurring a cost to help someone else,” he says.
“So that really tells us that humans have this innate kindness, otherwise they wouldn’t do that.
“And to our surprise, again, we found that letters dropped in high socio-economic areas were more likely to be returned.
“We believe that it may have something to do with the fact that people in low socio-economic areas, they are more preoccupied with meeting their immediate needs. And whereas people in high-end suburbs, they may have slightly different priorities. But we can only speculate on why people in low-end suburbs were less likely to return a letter.”
What does kindness look like?
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Benefits of self-kindness
“That’s why we tell people, when you have a setback or difficulty, what’s the tone of your self-talk like? Do you talk to yourself in an aggressive, matter-of-fact, blunt way, or can you speak to yourself in a friendlier way?
“If you speak to yourself in a friendly way, much like a friend would in terms of trying to be kind and helpful, the same areas of the brain light up.”
As a clinical psychologist, Dr Kirby adds that he works with a lot of people who feel they are unlovable and undeserving of kindness or compassion.
“They are very good at being kind to others but the very idea or thought of being kind to themselves is just completely foreign or a big no-no. They find it very threatening,” he says.
“We all have this inner voice that is judgemental or commenting or narrating … monitoring how we are going and performing.
“You try to explore what’s that about or where has this come from. Sometimes it can be, ‘Oh, that’s the way Dad spoke to me’, or ‘That’s the way teachers spoke to me’ so it has a long history.
“So, when you’re seeing people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, that kind of voice has been there for years … a lot of people don’t recognise that that inner tone can impact your physiology in your body much like if it was coming from someone else.”
If you’re wanting to start your day in the right mindset by being kinder to yourself, Dr Kirby has some words of advice:
“When you wake up in the morning, just welcome yourself.”
Sounds odd, right?
“Yes, that sounds a bit funny,” he laughs.
“But welcome yourself as if you’re saying hello to a dear friend in your mind. I would say, ‘Oh, good morning James’. Wake yourself with that joyful friendliness and playfulness, and that kicks off a different physiology in your body.
“As opposed to ‘What, it’s 6am, this is shit I have so much stuff to do’. That kicks off a stress physiology in your body, and already your stress levels are at their peak in the morning, and then they drop away across the day.”
Then for 30 seconds or a minute, contemplate: “If I was to be at my kindest today, what would I do?”
“Just imagine what it would be like to walk around at your kindest. Then start your day.”
This content was originally published here.