Faculty friday| 2019-11-29 Berta Dóra Bella

The biology of kindess

“A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.– William Arthur Ward

In today’s era of social isolation being kind has become a virtue, and a rare occurrence too. But what is kindness? The definition of kindness is ’a considerate act or deed, friendly help, selfless service’. But is that really all there is to it?

We all agree that kindness is a trait that generates positive feelings in both the giver and the receiver. It isn’t even a trait, really, more like a choice that makes the world a better place- so why shouldn’t we be kind to one another? A friendly gesture, a selfless act of helpfulness, a smile, a kind word or a hug are things we all do, even if we aren’t aware of it. Two-thirds of people have an average amount of empathy, the remaining third is divided between people with a lower than average and people with a higher than average amount of empathy.  However, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that we need to possess an unrealistic amount of empathy to perform acts of kindness. Kindness is an instinctive behavioral pattern that involves both learned and innate traits. We all have some amount of sensitivity to our fellow humans but we don’t all express it in the same way.

Kindness from a scientific point of view

Kindness and goodwill are tightly connected to basic human values and they also have biological benefits besides their moral advantages. There’s been extensive research about how acting friendly towards someone affects our system. According to Jo Cutler PhD and Dr. Robin Banerjee, research psychologists working at the University of Sussex, showing kindness makes a person happier and it also stimulates the brain in a positive way.

According to Christine L. Carter sociologist and happiness expert kindness is the secret to a long and healthy life and it has both psychological and physical benefits. This feeling of happiness is referred to as ’helper’s high’ by researchers. Some of these benefits are feeling stronger and more energetic or calmer and more optimistic. The science behind this is that when you show kindness to somebody the part of your brain responsible for happiness is stimulated which leads to the release of dopamine and consequently a feeling of euphoria. Your body’s response to doing a good deed is the production of endorphins. The happiness hormone acts as a neurotransmitter and its release results in an overall pleasant feeling.

Studies have shown that kind acts and empathy stimulate the striatum in the brain, the area responsible for processing new information coming from the cortex and handling physical and mental tasks. It is also part of the reward system.

According to research being kind to someone stimulates the brain a lot more than having someone be kind to us. One of the responses kindness induces, researchers note, is smiling. The reasons behind the contagiousness of smiling lie in neurobiology. Seeing an emotion automatically activates the same areas of the brain that are stimulated in the person receiving kindness, thus the person performing the act of kindness feels the effect their action has on the receiver. The same thing happens when we see someone laughing and we’re prompted to laugh ourselves.

Should we set a limit on how kind we should be and can there be harmful effects if we overdo it? 

Being considerate, benevolent and patient at all times is impossible – what’s more, trying to be altruistic all the time can actually have harmful effects. If you try to stay kind through clenched teeth, if you say yes to every single favor you’re asked you’re making the mistake of being too kind. Being friendly and helpful towards others has a positive effect on our mental wellbeing but there’s a limit and if you go above that kindness stops being beneficial and starts being harmful to your mind and body. When you feel like you’re forced to be kind and you’re expected to suppress your emotions and make sacrifices your inner tension grows greatly. Those who try to be kind no matter what are known to have sudden emotional outbursts and then feel endlessly guilty afterwards. Controlling emotions in such a strict way leads to depression, anxiety and physical and mental burnout.

So, like with everything else, you need to set a limit. Be kind not only to others, but yourself as well!