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The 5 Side Effects of Kindness

by David R Hamilton PhD

This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirt, issue 49

Side effects? Surely that’s what we talk about in relation to drugs?

True, but a side effect is anything that happens alongside that which is intended. I used to be a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry so I like the idea of writing about a positive side effect.

There are in fact 5 side effects of kindness. Each of them happen alongside that which is intended, which is an act of kindness. So, when we’re being kind these are the side effects that happen.

In a nutshell, kindness makes us happier, it’s good for the heart, it slows ageing, it improves relationships, and it’s contagious. These are the 5 side effects of kindness. Let’s briefly look at them one at a time.

Kindness makes us happier. We don’t really require science to tell us that we feel good when we help someone. It’s most people’s common sense experience. But if we were to have a look at the research, we’d find that science does confirm our personal experience. More than 95% of people report feeling good when they help someone. In some studies, the happiness of people doing random acts of kindness is compared to that of people in a control group. In every study, those doing the kindnesses always come out happier for being kind. Lots of research even shows that kindness is protective against depression.

Kindness is good for the heart. In short, being kind produces two key substances in the body. One is oxytocin and the other is nitric oxide. I refer to these in my book as ‘molecules of kindness’, simply because they are always produced when we’re being kind. Oxytocin helps to remove the dangerous substances that lifestyle and stress produce, substances that left alone can lead to heart attack and stroke. Nitric oxide dilates our arteries and lowers blood pressure. It also helps get rid of ‘bad’ cholesterol. Not too shabby! Therefore, due to the actions of these molecules of kindness, kindness is ‘cardioprotective’ – that is, it is protective towards the cardiovascular system.

Kindness slows ageing. There are seven underlying processes that lead to ageing. All seven of them are impacted by kindness; some of them directly by the molecules of kindness, and some by the feelings that kindness produces in us. For example, one of the processes of ageing is inflammation. The feelings brought about by kindness (that sense of connection, elevation, compassion, or a warm feeling in the chest) actually stimulate and ‘tone up’ the major anti-inflammatory system in the body. Research shows that the more we feel the feelings, the healthier (and younger – in its performance) the anti-inflammatory system becomes.

Kindness improves relationships. There’s a genetic reason why kindness is so healthy. It’s because the ‘kindness gene’ – the gene that inspires kind behaviour – is one of the oldest in the human genome, at around 500 million years young, give or take a day. Through that time it has become integrated into nearly all of the important systems of the body, which is why being kind feels good, is good for the heart and slows ageing. The gene also makes us feel good when we’re in relationships – with loved ones, friends, animals. Importantly, when there’s not enough kindness in any kind of relationship, it feels wrong. Numerous studies find that kindness is a key ingredient for any kind of relationship to last.

Kindness is contagious. Most people have witnessed this themselves. When someone does something nice for us, it feels good, and we then find ourselves being nicer to others in turn, even if it’s something as simple as paying a compliment. The same kind of thing happens when we’re the ones being kind. There’s always a ripple – or domino – effect. Harvard researchers even measured it pushing out to ‘3 degrees of separation’. This means that when you’re kind to someone, they are likely to be kind to someone else (1) who is then kind to someone else (2) who is then kind to someone else (3) – 3 degrees of separation. Every time you’re kind, you’re helping a lot more people than you think!

It’s nice to know what these side effects are. It’s useful in terms of health but it also inspires dialogue that very often leads to kind action. Ultimately, the more we think about, talk about, do, receive, or witness kindness, the more of a ripple-effect we create.

In this way, I believe that a small group of people with compassion and kindness in their hearts can change the world!

Meet The Author: Dr David Hamilton worked in the pharmaceutical industry for four years after gaining his PhD. Now a bestselling author, he travels the world offering workshops to help people understand the power of the mind on the body. He also blogs for The Huffington Post.

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