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How the astounding side effects of kindness can boost your health

Could a hug a day keep the cardiologist away? Maybe! An organic chemist who formerly worked in the pharmaceutical industry says that neurologically and physiologically speaking, the opposite of stress is how kindness feels in the body.

During the recent NRC Health 2022 Pediatric Conference, David R. Hamilton, PhD., author of Why Kindness Is Good for You, explained that kindness has a long-term protective effect on the body—a cardioprotective effect, like hugging someone. Studies show that women who had the highest hug scores had the highest levels of kindness hormones and the lowest blood pressure. And it’s not having just a feel-good effect: kindness has a physical effect on the brain’s structure.

Kindness Helps the Heart

Hamilton says that scientists did a study where they initially took cells from the cardiovascular system and the immune system, and put them in test tubes under stress. The stress was meant to simulate stressful conditions inside the body, whether dietary, lifestyle, or mental and emotional stress.

“They found quite high levels of inflammation, which you would expect, and high levels of free radicals, which ultimately damage the cardiovascular system,” Hamilton says. “But when they did the same experiment again, they dropped in a few drops of the kindness hormone. Levels of inflammation and free radicals dropped through the floor. In fact, in the immune system, there was an almost 57% reduction in inflammation inside immune cells within minutes as a consequence of introducing the kindness hormone.”

Kindness Makes Us Happier

“Instead of creating stress hormones, you can create kindness hormones,” says Hamilton. “You can build resilience to stress through practical acts of kindness. Kindness hormones act like a dimmer switch in that brain region which plays a central role in stress, worry, fear, and anxiety. Studies show that when you’re being kind, no matter what happens, it takes a little bit of the sting out of stressful events.”

In another study, Hamilton said scientists asked volunteers to watch a one-hour video of Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta, carrying out acts of compassion and kindness. Before they watched the video, they had samples taken of an immune-system antibody. After watching the video, those antibody levels had increased by 50%. “Isn’t that amazing?” Hamilton asks. “A 50% increase from doing nothing other than just watching this video, and having the experience of being the witness to acts of compassion.”

Kindness Slows Aging

Hamilton says that kindness hormones and other mechanisms inside the body that respond to compassion actually seem to combat immunosenescence, a gradual deterioration of the immune system as we age. “It doesn’t combat it completely, but it does slow it down a little bit,” he says. “The more you experience compassion—kindness—the more you top it up a little bit.

“One of the most potent antioxidants is the kindness hormone, the main kindness hormone,” he adds. “It does a fantastic job of that; it has an incredible elevating effect on overall immune function, and an anti-aging effect.”

Kindness Is Contagious

“It’s a fact that kindness is contagious,” Hamilton says. “Scientists at Harvard and Yale did a study where they found that kindness actually has a ripple effect out to three social steps, or three degrees of separation. If you’re kind to someone, that person will likely be kind, or kinder, to five people. So don’t ever underestimate the power of tiny little things that you do that you think are insignificant—they’re not.”

Hamilton says that one of the most important people you need to show kindness to is yourself. “Research shows that there are two main ways to be kind to ourselves,” he says. “One is in the things we do for ourselves, but the other is in how we think about ourselves—how we speak to ourselves about ourselves.” Hamilton suggests several exercises that can help self-kindness, and says that even as little as three minutes of “kindfulness” practice can make a difference each day.

Hamilton suggests people try the seven-day kindness challenge:

  • Do a different kind thing every day (no repeats within seven days)
  • Push yourself out of your comfort zone at least once
  • Make one of your kindnesses anonymous

Click here to view keynote speaker David R. Hamilton’s whole presentation from the NRC Health 2022 Pediatric Conference.