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It’s free, easy and we can all be members. Never before has the ‘K’ word been more important
his year has undoubtedly been full of sad and unsettling events. But one thing we always witness during bad times is the unrelenting kindness of strangers. Donations of food and clothes; people offering their homes to those in need; others going out of their way to help anyone in danger. Hearing about these selfless acts helps restore our faith in the inherent goodness of people.
But we need to remember that it’s not just during times of sorrow that we should be kind or mindful of others. It’s something we can do in small (or big) ways every day. ‘We live in a hectic society – just surviving from one day to the next comes with a lot of pressure,’ says David Jamilly, CEO of Kindness UK. ‘Being kind brings more positive feelings to the surface, which also helps society, as a whole, to be a nicer, softer place.’
What’s more, although it makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, kindness packs a more powerful punch than a room full of heavyweight boxers. It’s not only hugely contagious (and, unlike norovirus, something we want to catch), but in some instances it may also help to lengthen life expectancy and ease a variety of issues – from everyday stresses to feeling low. A kind act a day really could help you feel better. So what’s stopping you?
The University of California, Berkeley, undertook a five-year study involving 2,000 people over the age of 55. The results were astounding – participants who volunteered at two or more places reduced their chance of dying early by 44%. And get this: the only activity that had a slightly bigger effect on health was quitting smoking. Plus, the University of Texas found that those over the age of 65 who volunteered had a much lower chance of dying within eight years than those who didn’t. Go to do-it.org for volunteering opportunities near you.
Regular volunteers can reduce their risk of dying early by 44%
Researchers at the University of Michigan discovered that people who offered social support to others actually reduced their worries about their own situation when they were facing periods of financial trouble. Why? Experts from the Mental Health Foundation reckon that when we help someone less fortunate, it can offer perspective and help us realise how lucky we are. This leads to us having a more positive attitude to our own problems.
When we see a compassionate act, we experience something called ‘moral elevation’ – basically, we get a bit of a high. And that makes us feel optimistic and want to act altruistically, too. Here’s the science: in a study, university students were shown videos that were either humorous or featured compassionate or heroic acts. The results indicated that at peak emotional points, both the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which helps us self-soothe and feel calm, and the sympathetic nervous system (SMS), which activates the ‘fight or flight’ instinct, were triggered. The researchers think that this is because if we see a compassionate act, we must have first witnessed someone suffering, and that upsets us. Then, when we witness the compassion, our PNS is activated so we get that blissful feel-good effect – and that inspires us to ‘pay it forward.’ Time to put It’s A Wonderful Life on a loop, then.
An effective way to do this? Loving-kindness meditation (sometimes called ‘metta’). In a nutshell, you send goodwill, kindness and warmth to others by repeating a series of mantras (there are loads of websites explaining how to do it). Research in the US found that over a nine-week period, it increased people’s positive emotions – leaving them better able to ward off depression and experience increased life satisfaction. One study even showed that a single seven-minute session helped meditators feel more connected to loved ones and strangers, and, crucially, more accepting of themselves. Wow.
Let’s face it, giving up your seat on the train is a better way to chill out than eating a tub of ice cream
Researchers from Yale and UCLA discovered that people who regularly engaged in ‘prosocial behaviour’ (i.e, performed small, kind gestures for others) felt much happier. And let’s face it, giving up your seat on the train or letting someone in front of you in the supermarket queue are better ways to chill out than eating an entire tub of ice cream after a tough day at work.
No surprises that it’s a highly attractive quality – which David Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, found after he surveyed 10,000 people from 37 countries and asked them what’s most important to them in a mate. Kindness was the one universal requirement across the 37 nations. The power of love indeed.
While doing things for people will make you feel great, remember that being truly kind isn’t about your personal reward – it’s being nice just for the sake of it
1 Leave a book you’ve enjoyed in a public place, such as on a bus or in a local coffee shop, with a note inside.
2 Send an e-card to a loved one just to tell them how much you appreciate them. See gratefulness.org.
3 Support BBC Children in Need by buying some seriously cute products for your little ones (see p114).
4 Stop to talk to that homeless person you always rush past. It will make them feel less invisible.
5 If you see someone at a party who is struggling socially, strike up a conversation and introduce them to people to help them feel comfortable.
6 You know how great you feel when a stranger compliments you? Well, make sure you do it to someone at least once a week.
7 Donate blood – it only takes about 20 minutes and you could save a life; see blood.co.uk.
8 Help out one (or more) of the 1.2 million lonely older people in England. No excuses if you’re time poor – through ageuk.org.uk you can sign up to make a weekly 30-minute phone call to an elderly person in need.
9 Stop complaining for a week (or longer). It’s negative and drags others down. Try thinking positively instead – you might surprise yourself.
10 Be a ‘conversation shifter’. If you’re with people who gossip or are judgemental, try to gently steer the chat in a more upbeat direction.
GIFTS WITH MEANING
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*Available in selected stores.
Words Danielle Hine Photography Alamy, Getty Images