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The Biology Of Kindness: Why Caring Makes You Happier and Healthier

Shannon Harvey
I stuffed up this week.

I was in my supermarket doing a last minute shop before my son’s first birthday. An endless list of urgent work matters and birthday party arrangements were stretching beyond a foggy and indistinct horizon in my mind. I had a persistent, gnawing, anxious feeling that I was forgetting something. Something important.  

Then a text message appeared on my phone from a friend:

Are you on your way?

My friend was fresh out of hospital after a major surgery and was politely enquiring if I was about to arrive, as we’d agreed, to deliver her and her family a home cooked meal.

Despite the prompting ping in my inbox a week earlier, despite the reminder ding from my calendar the day before, and despite the buzz of a text message from the meal service website that morning, amidst all the information front and centre in my mind, I did not have enough processing bandwidth in my underpowered human head to compute the fact that it was my turn to cook.

My friend is a mother of two young kids and she’s facing some hefty health issues. She’s not the kind of person who’s naturally comfortable asking others for help and the fact that she invited friends and family to sign up to the Meal Train service, where we all pitch in to cook, is no small thing. And we're all keen. Volunteering for this gorgeous family is a hot ticket item. When the email invite goes out, you have to get in quick to tender your services. We all want to help in whatever way we can, and considering the new science of kindness, it’s little wonder really.

It turns out that while we typically think of kindness as a selfless act of generosity, the benefits actually go both ways. For example, donating money makes the “feel good” reward centre in our brains light up – physiological evidence of the “warm glow” feeling we get from doing something nice for someone else. Volunteerism has also been linked to greater life satisfaction, more purpose in life, greater self-esteem and fewer depressive symptoms. One study demonstrated that people who were feeling worried and stressed about their finances felt better when they offered support to someone else. Another study found that people who help others are more resilient in the face of stress.  

There are physiological health benefits from all this do-gooding too. People who volunteer four hours a week are 40 percent less likely to develop heart disease. People suffering from chronic pain experience decreased pain intensity when they are peer volunteers for others suffering from chronic pain. In fact, research consistently links volunteering to being less likely to die from any illness.

When you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, the health benefits of being connected to others make a lot of sense. In wild Paleolithic days, you needed to get along well with others if you wanted to live long enough to pass on your DNA to the next generation and researchers believe that in the same way we have basic needs for food, water, and shelter, we also have a basic need for connectedness. In the midst of a chronic illness epidemic, where isolation and loneliness is on par with other major risk factors such as lack of exercise, obesity, addiction, and mental illness that routinely make the list of public health concerns, kindness may well be the multivitamin many of us are missing.

But like with any health supplement, dose matters. It is not the case that the more you give, the better you feel. Taking on too much caring can have significant negative health consequences. Burnout and depression in overburdened caregivers can contribute to “compassion fatigue” where the results can be severe stress, distancing from close relationships, professional attrition, and depression.

Cooking the occasional meal for my friend is a far cry from becoming an overburdened caregiver, and my case, I had simply fallen into an old habit of taking on too much. When I received her text message, the cold agony of realisation flooded through my body. Her kids usually eat at 5:30pm. It was 5:31pm. I texted back saying I could be there in 45 minutes with the pasta sauce I had on the stove at home. “Not to worry,” she texted back, “We have leftovers for the kids and it’s a great excuse to order home delivery.”

My friend was absolutely lovely about my stuff up and truly gracious, but I felt rotten. Being “that” person who is so busy I forget goes against everything that I aspire to be and I see it as a privilege to cook an occasional meal for the people I love in their time of need. But there’s another critical element to the kindness-health connection that I had forgotten over the last few days as I’ve been wracked with shame. It’s a whole other topic for another blog, but it is of course, kindness for one’s self, or self-compassion – the skill of treating ourselves as we treat our friends. So on that note, I shall go a little softer on myself after this week’s stuff up. My friend has requested my famous paella for dinner when it’s my turn to cook next week and it will be delivered on time, with all my heart.

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