Thu | Nov 23, 2017

Michael Abrahams | Practise random acts of kindness, for your own good

Published:Monday | November 6, 2017 | 3:34 AMMichael Abrahams
Abrahams

A random act of kindness (RAOK) is a selfless act performed to help arbitrary strangers, for no reason other than to make them happier.

The phrase "practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty" was coined by Québec writer Anne Herbert in the early 1980s, and is based on the phrase "random acts of violence and senseless acts of cruelty", which she altered to create a more positive statement.  Her book Random Acts of Kindness was published in February 1993, and details stories of such benevolent acts.

Helping other people obviously helps them to feel good. But it also has benefits for those performing the good deeds. Performing RAOKs can improve the health of those who carry them out. University of British Columbia researchers conducted a study during which they assigned people with high levels of anxiety to do kind acts for other people at least six times a week. These acts included things like holding the door open for someone, doing chores for other people, donating to charity, and buying lunch for a friend. The researchers found that doing nice things for others led to a significant increase in the participants’ positive moods and relationship satisfaction and a decrease in social avoidance in socially anxious individuals.

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, who has studied happiness for over 20 years, “People who engage in kind acts become happier over time. When you are kind to others, you feel good as a person; more moral, optimistic, and positive.” Her research found that performing other positive acts once a week led to the most happiness.

What is not widely known, is that kindness has a positive effect on our physical health as well. In his book, Five Side Effects of Kindness, author David R. Hamilton, PhD presents scientific evidence that indicates that kindness makes us happier, is good for the heart, slows ageing, improves ageing and is contagious.

When we do something kind for someone else, we feel good. Biochemically, it is believed that the good feeling is caused by elevated levels of the brain’s natural versions of morphine and heroin, which are called endogenous opioids. These, in turn, cause levels of a substance called dopamine to become elevated in the brain. Among other things, dopamine has a positive effect on mood, causing us to get a natural high, often referred to as ‘Helper’s High’, when we are kind to others. So, helping other people can produce feelings of happiness and can activate reward centres of the brain, the way food, sex or drugs do.

The emotional warmth that accompanies acts of kindness produces the hormone, oxytocin, in the brain and throughout the body. Oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide which dilates (expands) blood vessels, resulting in lowering of blood pressure and protection of the heart. Oxytocin also reduces the levels of potentially harmful substances known as free radicals, as well as the process of inflammation, and in doing so, can slow ageing.

The fact that kindness improves relationships should come as no surprise. Kindness reduces the emotional distance between people and helps them to bond. From an evolutionary perspective, the stronger the emotional bonds within groups of our ancestors, the greater were their chances of survival. What may be surprising, however, is that kindness is contagious, and can create a ripple effect. A study reported that an anonymous person walked into a clinic and donated a kidney, setting off a ‘pay it forward’ type domino effect where the spouses or other family members of recipients of a kidney donated one of theirs to someone else in need. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported that 10 people in the United States of America received a new kidney as a consequence of that anonymous donor.

Stephen Post, of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, serves as president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. His research has found that that when we give of ourselves, especially if we start young, life satisfaction, self-realization, well-being, good fortune and physical health are significantly improved, depression is reduced, and mortality delayed. In other words, kindness helps us to live longer, happier and healthier lives.

Fortunately, kindness is teachable. Children can be taught to be kind to others and rewarded for doing so. They will also learn if we lead by example, which is not hard to do. Performing random acts of kindness for strangers, such as paying the toll for the person in the vehicle behind yours, or paying for a grocery item or items for someone behind you at the supermarket, or leaving a generous tip, if you can afford to, are acts that will not only ease the burdens of those you help, but set good examples for our children, in addition to benefitting our health.

According to Martin Kornfeld, “If we all do one random act of kindness daily, we just might set the world in the right direction”. I agree.

- Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.