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The real benefits of kindness

Updated: Nov 8, 2020

It’s world kindness day on November 13th and so this article looks at how we can be kind to ourselves and others, as well as what the most recent research tells us about the psychology and the benefits of acts of kindness.

Hard evidence from recent research

We already know that practicing meditation is highly beneficial for our health and wellbeing. A study published last year (1) provides further evidence that practicing loving kindness meditations slows biological aging in those new to this practice, when compared with mindfulness meditation, or, no form of meditation. Note that mindfulness meditation still had an impact but it just wasn’t as powerful as loving kindness meditation, which focuses the mind on kindness to self and others.

Completing acts of kindness has huge benefits for the person giving kindness as well as the person receiving the kindness. Interestingly a recent study (2) found no difference in the increased happiness states between groups who did the following for 7 days:

· Completed an act of kindness each day with people they had strong ties with

· Completed an act of kindness each day with people they had weak ties with (i.e., strangers)

· Completed novel acts of kindness for themselves

· Observed an act of kindness each day

These findings demonstrate that being kind to yourself as well as others are just as beneficial and simply observing acts of kindness is super helpful for us. Oh, and by the way, this study also found that the more acts of kindness completed, the higher the happiness levels.

Acts of kindness have also been shown to reduce depression in individuals who score low on the personality characteristic of agreeableness (3). Low agreeableness involves hostility, unfriendly behaviours and a propensity for conflict. When people assessing low on agreeableness participated in loving kindness meditations and acts of kindness, their levels of depression decreased and their life satisfaction increased, compared with a control group who did neither of these things. Further to this, doing acts of kindness reported the most reduction in depression and increases in life satisfaction compared to doing loving kindness meditations.

Even those with the lowest levels of wellbeing, in difficult situations, benefit from acting with kindness. Compared with the general population, prisoners, for example have much lower levels of wellbeing. A recent study (4) that focused on Chinese prisoners, found that prisoners who completed daily acts of kindness, such as helping others with their laundry, teaching others computer skills or comforting someone who was upset, showed higher levels of wellbeing at the end of the study than those who counted their blessings or made no changes.

Finally, simply recalling when you were kind to someone can be as effective as acting with kindness according to recent research (5). When comparing those who remembered when they were kind, those who completed acts of kindness and those who did nothing, both of the former groups showed increased levels of wellbeing.

Being kind to yourself

Self-compassion and self-care are so important for our health and wellbeing. Being kind to yourself will result in increased wellbeing and this means you will be well enough to care for others. We should therefore start with ourselves when being kind.

The mental health foundation provides many ideas for self-care and here are some of those that they recommend for how to look after your mental health and wellbeing when staying at home during quarantine or lockdown:

1. Plan your day – regular routines are essential for our identity, self-confidence and purpose. Try to begin your day at about the same time you usually would and use some time every day for movement, relaxation, connection and reflection.

2. Move more every day – being active reduces stress and increase energy levels; it also helps us to sleep better. Even if you’re unable to go out there are still activities you can do at home.

3. Try a relaxation technique – meditations, mindfulness activities and breathing practices can help to lighten negativity.

4. Connect with others – we can connect by post, email, phone, social media or by video. Giving a simple message of support by text is an act of kindness that will help you to feel better too.

5. Take the time to reflect and practice self-compassion – reflect on what has gone well over the last 24 hours, no matter how small or big that event. Writing these things down, including the part you played in them, has a big impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

See the Mental Health Foundation website for more ideas.

Being kind to others

Acts of kindness to others reap many rewards; see how one wonderful woman made a real difference in an effort to quell her loneliness in a big city:

Try some of these small acts of kindness over the next week. As a result you will be improving the wellbeing of yourself and others:

1. Simply smile; research tells us that smiling has a massive effect on wellbeing.

2. Just listen, with full attention.

3. Invite someone new to your friend group.

4. Make a donation, however small.

5. Help clean up, or do something practical for someone, without being asked.

6. Give someone some positive feedback and encourage them when they feel demotivated.

7. Give your time to a friend or family member who needs it.

8. Make somebody a cup of tea or coffee.

9. Do some baking and share it with neighbours by just leaving it on their doorstep.

10. Give someone a big hug (keeping to social distancing rules, of course).

Here’s another fantastic example of how one man began to change lives by starting up ‘random acts of flowers’:

So what are you waiting for? Try giving kindness once a day for the next week; write down how you feel at the beginning of the week on a scale of 1-10 on wellbeing or happiness and then see what your score is at the end of the week.

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