This year marks the 7th Anniversary of The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation and this year’s World Kindness Day’s focus is to make ‘being kind’ intentional – creating a habit so that it becomes the norm in our every day lives.
Kindness is one of the qualities we teach our children. It likely sits alongside teaching good manners. We teach our children to say please and thank you, to wait their turn, to share and to be kind to their friends and siblings. It’s a nice quality to have. Most of us would like kindness to be one of the qualities attributed to us and our children. Kindness doesn’t only have benefits for the receiver. As the giver, we feel good too.
The Neuroscience of Kindness
You may have been on the receiving end (you might be the giver) or you might have just heard the stories of people who have paid for the drinks or the food of the people behind them in the drive thru. Why do we do this, a random act of kindness, to a stranger? Because it makes us (as the giver) feel good. Acts of Kindness (random and spontaneous or planned and intentional) release the positive neurotransmitters in our brain that make us feel good. These neurotransmitters include dopamine and serotonin as well as endorphins (the natural pain killer) and oxytocin (often referred to as the love or connection hormone). This lovely happy mix of neurotransmitters is not just for the giver and receiver but also for anyone who witnesses this act of kindness.
This release of neurotransmitters is sometimes referred to as the ‘Helper’s High’. When we help others, the dopamine receptors in our brain light up just as if we were receiving. Now one dose of this only lasts a few minutes and doesn’t create lasting change but if we start to become intentional (as encouraged by The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation) and cultivate a habit of daily kindness we can actually create significant change in our brain (and our body). Regular and consistent habits of kindness decrease pain, stress, depression, and anxiety, as well as lowering our blood pressure. We are actually healthier as a result of being kind.
Kindness improves our connections (our positive interactions) and this, if a consistent habit, has a physical effect on our vagus nerve:
- The vagus nerve is part of our parasympathic nervous system which is commonly referred to as the rest and digest system.
- Barbara Fredrickson, Psychologist and author of the book Positivity refers to the vagus nerve as living tissue which ‘tethers our brain to our hearts’.
- After a shock, our vagus nerve activates to slow our heart rate but when we make connections with others through kindness it also helps to slow our heart rate, as well as reduce inflammation and as a result our chances of having a heart attack are lowered. Being kind can actually increase our chance of living a longer life (and a happier one too).
If kindness is so beneficial for our mental and physical well-being (and even has a positive impact on those around us), it seems that we should be intentional in making this something that we do each and every day and something that we teach and encourage our children to do.
Kindness comes in many forms and is something we likely do every day but if we become more intentional, we teach our children kindness and they can feel the benefits of increased kindness, but more than this, our brain becomes more aware and more wired for kindness. Remember kindness increases connection – and we need connection. As we increase our kind actions, we increase our capacity for kindness. And as our capacity increases so do the benefits.
The Benefits of Kindness (for all – for the giver, the receiver, and the witness of kindness)
|Increased dopamine||–||tells the brain “This is good, let’s do it again”, improves mood, sleep and motivation|
|Increased serotonin||–||the ‘happiness’ hormone, helps regulate mood and improves sleep|
|Increased endorphins||–||help relieve pain, reduce stress, and improve sense of well-being|
|Increased oxytocin||–||increases feelings of connection, trust, and empathy (can also reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels)|
|Decreased cortisol||–||the ‘stress’ hormone, decreased cortisol can help reduce inflammation, can lower blood sugar|
Taking Action to Increase Kindness
Kindness is both teachable and contagious – and of benefit to all.
Here are some ideas to increase kindness in your home and help your children to actively participate in intentional kindness.
- Start simple – just a smile can be an act of kindness. A smile causes mirror neurons to fire which simulates a smile reaction, in essence a smile is contagious and so in turn is the brain response to produce endorphins and serotonin. Start a family smile challenge – pick a day and see who can get the most smiles returned.
- Call, text or write a note – grandparents are often delighted by a handwritten note, picture or card in the post, and a simple note in your children’s lunch or bag can bring a smile to their face (even if they are embarrassed, they will secretly love it!).
- Telling someone you appreciate them and complimenting them on a job well done. Challenge your family to give five compliments and then share how you felt giving and receiving compliments at the end of your day.
- Donate a toy – as we are moving towards Christmas it’s a great time to choose a toy to give away or to buy a toy as a gift for families who are struggling this Christmas.
- Plan a Reverse Advent Calendar – many families do this in December, but it can be helpful to get started early so that the food can be distributed before Christmas. There are many resources online to help you do this and the food can then be taken to a local food bank.
- Give Flowers – leaving flowers for a neighbour or taking to a friend.
- Create a Kindness List – adding to the ideas above. Number the list and then use a random number generator app to select a number and that focus on that action for the day (or week)
These are just a few ideas that you could begin to use to increase intentional kindness for you and your family.
For more ideas and for “kindness calendars” you can visit www.randomactsofkindness.org who have many resources developed for all ages.
“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” Amelia Earhart
Imagine the happiness you could create with several acts of kindness!