The Kernel

Simple Acts: the science of kindness

Think about a time when you did something kind for someone else. Maybe you treated a friend to a meal. Maybe you randomly gave a stranger on the street a compliment. Or maybe you were kind to yourself by setting aside time for some self-care. Whatever it was, chances are that no matter how small your act may have seemed, you felt pretty great after!

Most of us go through the world intending to be kind, but when the natural stresses of life get in the way, it can be hard to make intentional kindness a priority. It can take a concerted effort to remember to be kind if we’re out of practice (and that’s why we’re currently running our Kind 45 Challenge!), but it’s important to remember that acts of kindness don’t have to be huge gestures to be effective. No matter how small, kind acts have farther-reaching effects than you might imagine, effects that go beyond making someone’s life better or brightening their day (though these are also great, of course!). But kindness also has many proven benefits for our own health and wellbeing.

First, even if you’re not currently in a regular practice of performing kind acts, it’s an easy habit to get started and one that feeds itself naturally. Kindness changes our brains by creating new neural connections and releasing endorphins and oxytocin. The more acts of kindness we carry out, the more we enforce those pathways in the brain, and the more effortlessly kindness comes to us.

The release of these chemicals is responsible for many of the well-documented physical benefits of kindness. These benefits start with improvements in our mental health, including reduced levels of anxiety and depression. Alongside the release of oxytocin, kindness is associated with lower levels of cortisol, known as the stress hormone. As a result, participants in studies on practicing kindness report higher energy levels and feeling calmer after helping others.

Physically, the chemicals released from kindness have huge benefits for heart health and other associated conditions. Oxytocin causes the release of nitric oxide, which dilates the blood vessels and therefore reduces blood pressure, protecting the heart. Increased oxytocin also causes better, more restful sleep, which is linked to better cardiovascular health as well. Long-term studies of people who regularly participate in volunteer work also prove that kindness is associated with increased lifespan and decreased likelihood of early death. Frequent volunteers also report fewer aches and pains in their daily lives.

If the physical, tangible benefits weren’t enough, kindness has been proven to just make us feel…well, good all around! It raises our self-esteem and increases our capability for empathy and compassion. One study followed participants for 10 days, after which those who had performed an act of kindness on each day were found to have higher levels of life satisfaction. Another study which tracked participants for 7 days set out to see whether the known positive effects of kindness were at all affected by what “type” of kindness was being performed– kind acts to friends vs. kind acts to strangers, as well as kind acts to oneself. The study found that each type of kindness was equally effective in boosting happiness.

That explains why any act of kindness, no matter how simple, and no matter to whom, makes you feel so good. Simple acts are really all it takes, and there are countless ways to be kind. If you’re looking for a few ideas, check out our Kind 45 checklist for inspiration. Remember, if it feels effortful at first, all it takes is a little repetition and you’ll be well on your way to brightening the world around you and improving your physical and mental wellbeing!