Being Good is Good for Your Heart

In compassion

david hamiltonI learned recently that being kind is, chemically, physically, good for your heart. Not your metaphorical heart—though it’s good for that too, I’ve always known that. I’m talking about the muscle itself. I learned about the physiological processes behind this from a TEDx speaker. (I’m on a TEDx kick now, watching many of these talks on the Web, because it’s a program that provides a way for anyone in the world to see local heroes share ways to make a difference with others from their home town, or county, or region.)

The speaker who spoke, in his pronounced Scottish accent, about how a warm heart is a healthy heart was David Hamilton, a scientist and author. He began to research look into why compassion and kindness are good for the body ultimately because he watched his mother being kind to other people all through his childhood. She would tell him: “when you live from the heart, it’s good for the heart.” After working for a pharmaceutical company, contriving complex molecules to treat disease, he began to wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to prevent disease through behavior. Diet, exercise, the usual regimen.

“I’ve been out of the industry for more than twelve years, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of these protective behaviors is kindness and compassion,” he told his audience. “Kindness have a very interesting side effect. From the pharmaceutical background, you think side effects are negative. But kindness makes us feel happier.”

He described a study that required certain participants to pick one day of the week and perform five acts of kindness on that day every week for a month. At the end of the practice, the researchers compared this group with a control group that wasn’t required to be kind. The compassionate group shows all the signs of being happier at the end of the period. It didn’t take much: saying thanks, making a cup of tea for someone else, stopping to help someone who had dropped a bag. Not world-changing, just nice.

“(As a species, we) evolved into groups and communities. The groups with the strongest bonds are the most likely to survive. One of the ways to create strong bonds in a group is to be kind and show compassionate behavior. Kindness becomes wired. People would say that can’t be right. We’re definitely wired for selfishness. Yet studies of Buddhist monks who practice a meditation called loving kindness: whose think kind thoughts continuously, may you be well, may you be peaceful and at ease, may you be without suffering, these people show changes in the brain on account of this attitude of kindness.”

He traces another crucial effect of kindness to a hormone called oxytocin. It creates a mood we commonly call warm-fuzzy. The body releases it when the body engages in affectionate physical contact: nothing more than a kiss or a hug, for example. It’s one of the benefits of breastfeeding for a mother. It relaxed the blood vessels, lowers blood pressure. It also reduces inflammation and lowers free radicals.

The lesson from all of this: your body needs acts of kindness. You own and those of others. If you want to be happier and live longer, give someone a hug today. Then keep doing it, day after day.

Can you think of easy ways to perform five acts of kindness, not just one day per week, but every day?