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Is Doing Good Good for You? How Genuine Kindness Affects the Brain

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When we offer to help someone or look at someone else with compassion and decide to do something about it, we are practicing genuine kindness

Such acts which can go unnoticed in our day-to-day lives are beneficial not only to others but also ourselves. Do you know that feeling that you feel after you do something kind? It’s part of the effects caused by genuine kindness in our brains

Selfless Kindness Activates Our Brain’s Rewards Regions

In 2018, a group of British researchers from the University of Sussex stated that acts of generosity activate brain regions associated with reward

The study analyzed 1,150 participants whose brains were scanned through  functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) throughout a 10-year period, but the analysis had a particular aspect: it compared between altruistic and strategic giving – i.e. attitudes aimed at getting something in return or receiving some kind of recognition.  

“This major study sparks questions about people having different motivations to give to others: clear self-interest versus the warm glow of altruism,” said the research leader Dr. Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn in a statement released right after the study was published. 

He continued, “The decision to share resources is a cornerstone of any cooperative society. We know that people can choose to be kind because they like feeling like they are a ‘good person’, but also that people can choose to be kind when they think there might be something ‘in it’ for them such as a returned favour or improved reputation.”

The Reward Is Bigger When We Give Non-Strategically 

The researchers found out that “strategic decisions showed greater activity in striatal regions than altruistic choices”, which are those from which nothing is expected in return. The striatum acts on nondeclarative or implicit memory, which is the subconscious memory and certain skills such as riding a bike or ice skating. In other words, activities we do “without thinking”. 

On the other hand, “altruistic giving, more than strategic, activated subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC). Studies showed that “the mean gray matter volume of this “subgenual” ACC (sgACC) cortex is abnormally reduced in subjects with major depressive disorder (MDD) and bipolar disorder, irrespective of mood state.

Ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is involved during generous decisions and is responsible for differentiating between these two types of kindness. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex participates in the processing of risk and fear, since it plays an important role in the regulation of amygdala activity. The vmPFC is also important to inhibit emotional responses and to the process of decision-making and self-control, in addition to being involved in our sense of morality. 

In other words, people who practice genuine kindness activate more of the part of the brain that regulates the amygdala – thus maintaining stress levels in balance. By practicing genuine kindness, the brain also operates in regions that, if rarely active, are related to depression and bipolar disorder. Therefore, after such analyses, the researchers concluded that it’s much more pleasurable when we act in a selflessly kind manner. 

The science of kindness 

By researching about the effects of kindness in our brains, we came across the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, a non-profit organization that invests resources into turning kindness into something widely practiced by people, whether at home, in school or at work. This initiative is based on scientific research that proves we can live better by practicing kindness. 

Other proved functions that involve practicing kindness: 

Kindness Increases the Love Hormone: 

Oxytocin, the love hormone, is released when we practice acts of kindness. This release helps to reduce arterial pressure and to improve the heart’s overall health – Natalie Angier, The New York Times

Energy: 

Half the participants of one study felt strengthened and more energetic after helping others. Some reported that they also felt calmer and less depressed – Christine Carter, UC Berkeley, Greater Good Science Center

:: Read Also: What is Cognitive Development? ::

Practicing Kindness Can Reduce Anxiety 

A study by Dr. Lynn Alden, professor from the University of British Columbia and by the psychologist Dr. Jennifer Trew indicates that social anxiety can be reduced by practicing genuine kindness. 

The authors of the study recruited 115 undergraduate students who presented high levels of social anxiety. These participants were split randomly into three groups for an intervention that lasted four weeks. 

One of the groups was encouraged to carry out acts of kindness; another group was exposed to social interactions; and the third group got no instructions, all they were asked to do was to keep a record of their routines. The results showed that a greater reduction in the desire to avoid social interactions was observed amongst the individuals who were encouraged to do acts of kindness. 

What Professor Lynn Alden Says 

“The main goal of social anxiety treatment is to increase involvement in social situations, which socially anxious individuals tend to avoid. The exercises of social exposure may be improved by encouraging anxious individuals to focus on loving actions. Therefore, opening the door to a neighbor who’s pushing a baby stroller, thanking the cashiers at the grocery store for their help or offering coffee to a colleague can be good ways for them to start their social exposure,” reported the professor. 

Professor Lynn Alden also explained that acts of kindness may help someone who is socially anxious face the fear of being negatively assessed by others, promoting more positive perceptions and expectations of how people will react to them. 

“We discovered that any kind act seemed to have the same benefit, even small gestures such as opening the door to someone or saying “thank you” to the bus driver. Kindness doesn’t need to involve money or long efforts, although some of our participants did that. Kindness didn’t even need to be “face to face”. For example, acts of kindness can include donating to charity or adding a coin to someone else’s parking meter when you notice it is blinking. Studies by other researchers have suggested that it is important for the kind act to be done by and of itself, and that it doesn’t look coerced or for the giver’s own personal gain. Aside from that, everything counts”

Practicing Kindness Can Slow Aging

Oxytocin, a hormone produced through emotional heat, acts in the reduction of the body’s levels of free radicals and the inflammation of the cardiovascular system. This way, it slows aging at its root. Free radicals and the inflammation of the cardiovascular system play an important role and we can therefore say that kindness is also good for the heart. 

Some scientific journals have already published studies about the strong link between compassion and vagus nerve activity. The vagus nerve, in addition to regulating the heart rate, is also responsible for controlling the body’s inflammation levels. 

One study analyzed the Tibetan buddhists’ meditation and found that kindness and compassion help reduce body inflammation, probably due to their effects on the vagus nerve. 

These analyzes are present in the book “The Five Side Effects of Kindness: This Book Will Make You Feel Better, Be Happier & Live Longer” written by  Dr. David R. Hamilton, who has a PhD in Organic Chemistry and worked in the pharmaceutical industry for several years developing drugs for treating cardiovascular diseases. 

Written by Débora Nazário

Translated by Mariana Gruber

EDITOR’S NOTE 

All this information refers to genuine kindness. “Genuine” means pure, real, true. It’s important to take this into consideration because no one can demand acts of genuine kindness from others. These actions happen spontaneously, from the heart. 

⚠️ Dear parents: being an example really is a way to show kids how doing good is good for you – however, forcing this type of situation is not the solution.

If you are not having a good day, don’t force yourself to do anything that you don’t want to do in order to “be a good example for your kids”. 

This won’t be good neither to you nor to your little ones. In addition, avoid demanding good deeds from your kids. No one is going to stop being a good person just because they didn’t hold the door to let someone in. 

Allow these qualities to manifest of their own accord, without effort or encouragement. The beauty and the benefits of genuine kindness are in letting it manifest itself spontaneously. Don’t worry about “being kind” or “teaching your kids to be kind”. There is kindness inside everyone, you must simply perceive it and allow it to manifest. 

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