You do something kind. A warm feeling rushes over you and you suddenly feel better. No, this feeling of well-being isn’t all in your head. The warm feeling of well-being that washes over you when you've done something kind are in your brain chemicals, too. Kindness is a gift to both you and the recipient of your kindness.
Random Acts of Kindness have the potential to release hormones that contribute to your mood and overall wellbeing. The practice is so effective it's being formally incorporated into some types of psychotherapy. "We all seek a path to happiness," says Dr. Waguih William IsHak, a professor of psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai. "Practicing kindness toward others is one we know works."
How Does This Work? Kindness Has a Chemical Basis
Most research on the science behind why kindness makes us feel better has centered around oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes called "the love hormone,” or “the cuddle hormone” and plays a role in forming social bonds and trusting other people. We’ve often heard its importance attached to mothers bonding with their babies.
Doing something kind creates the same chemical hormone mothers produce when they breastfeed, cementing their bond with their babies. Also known as the “cuddle” hormone, oxytocin is released when we're physically intimate with another person. It makes us as human beings more trusting, generous, and friendlier, while also lowering our blood pressure. This hormone is responsible for feelings of wellbeing. When we take an active role in kindness, our moods are rewarded.
Random Acts of Kindness can also give our love hormone levels a boost, research suggests. Dr. IsHak says studies also suggest that Random Acts of Kindness release dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain that can give us a feeling of euphoria. This feel-good brain chemical is credited with causing what's known as a "helper's high." “Helper’s high” is the feeling we get after helping someone and how we feel about ourselves afterward. It helps to increase connection with others and contributes, too, to feelings of wellbeing and reduces anxiety and depression. In addition to boosting oxytocin and dopamine, being kind can also increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood.
Kindness as a Treatment for Pain, Anxiety and Depression
According to Dr. IsHak, researchers know that acts of kindness influence our brains. Because of this, medical professionals, including psychiatrists, often treat certain mental health conditions, such as pain, anxiety, and depression by prescribing acts of kindness to regulate mood. As of 2019, Cedars-Sinai suggests:
- Studies are investigating if oxytocin can be beneficial in treating some conditions. The hormone is a protein and cannot simply be taken as a pill. It's being studied in injection and nasal spray forms.
- Mindfulness-based therapy is becoming increasingly popular for treating depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. The therapy is built on mindfulness meditation, documenting your gratitude, and acts of kindness. People being treated in a mindfulness-based therapy program incorporate acts of kindness into their daily routines. (Personally, I have been doing mindfulness meditation for the past seven years. The impact on my life has been tremendous. Just thirty minutes a day has an enormous impact on the other 23.5 hours in my day.)
- "The benefits of mindfulness-based meditation practices are now unequivocal," says Arash Asher, director of Cancer Rehabilitation and Survivorship at Cedars-Sinai's Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute. "In a remarkable study, even a short 8-week mindfulness meditation program was found to reduce size and activity of the amygdala, which is the area of the brain that is associated with fear and anxiety. In other words, there is clear evidence that mindfulness meditation can change the way our brains look and function."
- Helping others is also believed to increase levels of an endorphin-like chemical in the body called substance P, which can relieve pain, Dr. IsHak says. For example, fibromyalgia syndrome is a chronic pain disorder that exhibits elevated levels of cerebrospinal fluid substance P. Because substance P is known to influence the normal process of pain perception, there is reason to address it in fibromyalgia, for example. Performing acts of kindness may reduce pain associated with this syndrome.
Acts of Kindness Need to Be Repeated Frequently
The good news is that a simple act of kindness can reward our bodies and minds with feel-good chemical substances. However, the effect isn't lasting. A single act of kindness isn't going to carry you through several days, or even hours. "The trick you need to know: Acts of kindness have to be repeated," Dr IsHak says. "Biochemically, you can't live on the 3-to-4-minute oxytocin boost that comes from a single act."
That's why kindness is most beneficial as a practice. A practice is something we work into our daily routine. Ideas for including it daily or weekly may involve volunteer work, something simple like dropping coins into an expired parking meter, bringing a snack to share with your office mates, or holding the elevator for someone. There are a multitude of ideas how to include kindness into your daily routine. Please see our Random Acts of Kindness card prompts that offer 52 suggestions for including random acts of kindness into your life.
Helping Ourselves and Our Communities
"The rewards of acts of kindness are many," says Dr. IsHak. "They help us feel better and help those who receive them." With an attitude to do kind things for others, we are building better and stronger communities, connections with others, and being the change we wish to see in the world. However you phrase your actions, know that the kind things you do for others also improves your life. It’s a win-win for both the giver and the receiver. And when doing so, it creates the ripple effect for all.
Pick up a pack of Random Acts of Kindness prompt cards to get some great ideas for showing acts of kindness to others. After you’re finished with the deck, as an act of kindness, gift it to another person and watch the ripple effect take hold.