The Health Benefits Of Being Kind

A cup of tea in the hands of a man and a woman for health benefits kindness

You don’t have to wait until Random Acts of Kindness Day (February 17, 2024) to make someone’s day, so why not think about what you can do today? And did you know that being kind is also good for your own health?

Imagine being the reason someone smiles today. Makes you smile back a little bit in return, doesn’t it? Whether you’re acting kind, or someone’s been kind to you, chances are it feels good for all involved.

It’s no coincidence, kindness IS contagious, so the more we do kind things, the kinder other people end up being, too. In psychological terms, this is known as activating mirror neurones, or “modelling behaviours”, like when someone smiles at you, you can’t help smiling back.

Asian lady smiling on bus

Pic: Shutterstock

If that wasn’t a good enough reason, science shows that kindness also helps benefit our health, both physically and mentally. You don’t need grand gestures, money or much of an imagination to make someone’s day while giving yourself a boost at the same time.

Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXA PPP healthcare, shares the psychology of kindness and some of the ways we can all benefit.

Dr. Mark Winwood - AXA PPP healthcare

Dr. Mark Winwood – AXA PPP healthcare

We’re made to be kind

“We’re biologically wired to be kind – it’s human nature. That’s not to say everyone behaves kindly, we know that’s not true – many of us can be unkind, either intentionally or through lack of awareness. Sometimes, through outside influences or the stress of our day-to-day lives, we can lose this inherent ability. But it is possible to learn to be kinder, to develop this trait with practise and repetition.”

In fact, research has found that people can actually build up their compassion “muscle” and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.

A study by researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin–Madison shows that adults can be trained to be more compassionate. Researchers asked: “Can compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practise that mindset?” Their evidence points to yes.

Darwin observed that humans have an enormous capacity for prosocial, cooperative and altruistic behaviour. That is, we’re all capable of kindness if we choose.

The health benefits of kindness

Giving is good for you

Research shows that we may benefit from giving support more than receiving it – and we’re also more likely to get support in return when we need it.

Kindness helps minimise anxiety

Aggression, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety are all major problems in society today. According to the Mental Health Foundation nearly half (43.4%) of UK adults think that they have had a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their life (35.2% of men and 51.2% of women). A fifth of men (19.5%) and a third of women (33.7%) have had diagnoses confirmed by professionals.

Could practising kindness be a cure for anxiety?

“In short, yes”, says Dr Winwood. “While there’s no magic ‘one-size fits all’ solution, there are many (proven and anecdotal) ways to reduce feelings of anxiety, such as meditation, exercise, prescription, talking therapies medications, and natural remedies. But one thing not really talked about is how being nice to others can actually be one of the easiest, most inexpensive ways to keep anxious feelings at bay.

You see, as the giver of kindness, you can reap the psychological reward – in other words, it feels good to be nice.

In fact, according to research from Emory University, when you’re kind to another person, your brain’s pleasure and reward centres are activated, as if you were the recipient of the good deed—not the giver. This phenomenon is called the “helper’s high.”

Kindness reduces stress

Two smiling students having a cup of coffee in college canteen for health benefits kindness

Pic: Shutterstock

Helping others lets you get outside of yourself and take a break from the stressors in your own life, and this behaviour can also make you better equipped to handle stressful situations. Scientists have found that perpetually kind people have 23% less cortisol (the stress hormone) and age slower than the average population.

Dr Winwood explains: “Doing nice things for others helps boost your serotonin and dopamine levels, the neurotransmitters in your brain responsible for feelings of satisfaction, reward and wellbeing.

Like exercise, kindness and altruism also releases endorphins, that euphoric feeling that money can’t buy.

Physically, making others feel good can also affect the actual chemical balance of your heart. Kindness releases the hormone oxytocin (also known as the “love hormone”), which causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide in blood vessels, which dilates the blood vessels and  lowers blood pressure.

Giving is good for society

Intertwined hands to show heart shape for health benefits kindness

Pic: Shutterstock

German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once described kindness as “the golden chain by which society is bound”.

“When we give to others it activates the areas of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust. It can make us feel closer to people, it creates community. When we have communities or ‘tribes’ of like-minded people helping each other out, it helps reduce feelings of social isolation and loneliness,” says Dr Winwood.

One common description of loneliness is the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships is not met and it’s widely reported as a contributing factor to mental health conditions like depression.

Not feeling like we have anyone to share our problems with can impact on our psychological mental resilience. When times get difficult, it’s good to talk and share how you’re feeling, which is why social connection is important.

Kindness is contagious!

Apparently, the positive effects of kindness are experienced in the brain of everyone who witnesses a kind act, improving their mood and making them significantly more likely to “pay it forward.” This means one good deed in a crowded area can create a domino effect of kind deeds and positivity.

Women chatting on bus for health benefits kindness

Pic: Shutterstock

10 Tops tips to kindness

Try these simple 10 random acts of kindness to make someone’s day:

  1. Smile at someone – it will make them smile, too!
  2. Open the door for someone
  3. Let someone go ahead of you in a queue
  4. Give up your seat on public transport to someone who might need it more
  5. Ask someone how they are – and mean it. It could be a colleague you know might be struggling, or a family member
  6. Put your phone down when you’re with a friend or loved one – recognising and acknowledging they’re important by really listening and being interested in what they have to say
  7. Surprise a friend with a coffee and cake
  8. Ask an elderly neighbour if they need help with anything
  9. Offer to babysit for a friend who might need a break
  10. Give a compliment!

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Moira Chisholm

I'm the Health Editor on My Weekly and am always interested to hear what's new in this fascinating field. I also deal with the gardening, shopping pages, general features, our website content and the Ask Helen problem page. I have a special interest in Christmas content because I'm on the team for Your Best Ever Christmas Magazine, too!