Cool to be kind: The advantages of being altruistic

Sunday is World Kindness Day, but just how good for you is being kind? David R Hamilton explains...

The benefits of kindness range from your emotional health, right down to your cardiovascular and nervous systems. It was in 1979 that psychologists first coined the term called "helpers' high" after a survey found that charity volunteers felt happier.

When a person performs an act of kindness the brain produces dopamine, associated with positive thinking. Secondly, the brain has its own natural versions of morphine and heroine: endogenous opioids, such as endorphins. It is believed that when a person does an act of kindness they feel good on a chemical level thanks to the production of these endogenous opioids.

Physically, the benefits come from the relaxation of your nervous system and your cardiovascular system. If you do an act of kindness face-to-face with someone – for instance you help someone carry their shopping – you create an emotional bond. The body produces Oxytocin, the bonding hormone. It binds to the lining of our blood vessels and causes the dilation of the arteries. The side effect of all that is a reduction of blood pressure. Oxytocin is a cardio-protective hormone. For me, that realisation is one of the most significant breakthroughs. At the same time, kindness benefits the nervous system. The longest nerve in the human body the vagus nerve, which controls inflammation in the body. It plays a role in keeping your cardiovascular system healthy. Studies show that people who practice compassion have a more active vagus nerve.

To feel these benefits, you don't have to go out looking to change someone's life. It can be a matter of small things. If you're on the look-out, you automatically start to notice opportunities. For instance, a woman going down stairs with a pram. There's something I call the 21-day kindness challenge. You do one act of kindness every day: make a cup of tea, pay a compliment. Something you wouldn't usually do, but which will make a difference.

David R Hamilton is the author of 'Why Kindness is Good for You'

Making a difference: Extraordinary tales of everyday kindness

My father died the day before I married. "Too late to cancel," the family said, so we made our vows.

Beside me stood my best friend, Sally. We stayed with her on our honeymoon in Cornwall. Dad would have wanted us to go.

While our husbands were off beachcombing, Sally held me tight, talking softly as bitter tears spilled on to her shoulder. She spoke of my father's joy that I was at last ready to settle down. She knew things my husband couldn't – he'd only met Dad a couple of times.

Sally enveloped me with her compassion, but gave me space to grieve. She carried my grief, so my new husband didn't have to. Her strong arms held me together when I was falling apart. And when my tears dried, she gave me back to my husband, calm and with a smile on my face.

Kini Brown

I sit on a chair next to my bath wearing a black binbag. I crook my neck at an angle as my sister sprays my hair – and half of my face – with warm water. She dispenses shampoo into her hands and massages it into my head. Her small, familiar hands with blotches of eczema touch and massage my scalp, loving me, ridding me of any last trace of "hospital smell". I cannot wash my own hair because I cannot raise my left arm. I have just had an operation to relieve my body of breast cancer. I am terrified. I am alive. I am loved. But now, I have clean hair.

Caroline Earnshaw

I had recently separated from my husband when my friend, Tracy, asked me to go round for coffee. She took my kids into the garden and, on returning, found me fiddling with her CD player. It had a mechanism when the "open" button was pushed. "Better than yours?" Tracy asked. "I don't have a CD player any more," I answered. A few weeks later, I took the kids on holiday. Tracy asked for my keys, "just to keep an eye on the house", she said. On our return home I found that not only had Tracy and her niece totally spring-cleaned my chaotic house, her partner had given my garden a makeover. When they left and the kids had gone to see their father, I (rather emotionally) slowly walked round my clean, ordered home, then I spotted it – in the corner of the living room, a new CD player, exactly the same as Tracy's. I spent a long, long time pressing that in-out-in-out button. I still do.

Emma Coquet

On the morning of 21 July 1991, I received a telephone call from my daughter. She was crying hysterically saying that her baby daughter, Lindsay (who was slightly less than 10 months old) was found dead in her crib. My husband and I got into our van and drove off at high speed. I was sobbing hysterically. About an hour into our drive, I told my husband to stop at the rest stop ahead. I was still crying as I made my way into the toilet. I could barely see through my tears. As I was washing my hands, a woman walked up and put her hands on my arms and held them. She said: "Whatever it is... I hope it gets better for you." Those few words spoken to me in the worst moments of my life have continued to resonate in my mind.

Ronna A Whitaker

I was 29km into a 30km bike ride, struggling up one of the final inclines. I was in the middle of Sweden, on a borrowed bike, with three people I'd met only days earlier on a working holiday with a charity. I'd not been on a bike in 20 years and I'm not especially fit. Spiritually, it felt like a pilgrimage. Like every pilgrim, I'd reached a moment of real anguish and torment. It was as if the difficult times in my life were manifesting themselves in the physical pain of that very moment. Then I felt a hand gently pressing on the small of my back. A fellow cyclist had pulled alongside me and was supporting me on my upward climb. That simple touch melted years of tension, mistrust, isolation and fear. His gesture was the kindest thing anyone has ever done for me. I made it up the hill and to the end of what felt like a very long journey.

Rae Ritchie

These stories of kindness are taken from the December issue of 'Psychologies' magazine, which is on sale now

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