It’s no secret that kindness makes us, and society, happier and healthier. But that warm rush of joy that bubbles up when you’ve done an act of kindness isn’t an illusion.
Kindness impacts the brain directly, releasing essential hormones that impact your emotional wellbeing and mood. Many forms of therapy recognize how kindness affects the brain and have incorporated it into different treatment methods.
Here are some of the critical ways that kindness affects the brain:
Oxytocin¹ is frequently referred to as “the love hormone” because it’s released when we are physically intimate. Oxytocin is known for making us friendlier and increasing our bond with others while also physically reducing blood pressure.
Cuddling and intimacy release oxytocin, but so does kindness. When we are kind to others, oxytocin is released, making us feel more connected and trusting². Oxytocin is essential for social bonding, and kindness increases the oxytocin levels of the giver and receiver of kindness.
Kindness makes us happier, but how? Kindness affects the brain by releasing serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for decreasing feelings of anxiety and increasing happiness². Serotonin is commonly used to treat mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Still, kindness is a natural way to increase serotonin in the brain—those who are altruistic experience greater levels of happiness. For example, a 2010 Harvard Business School survey of happiness found that people in 136 countries who were financially generous were the happiest overall³.
Exercise is commonly associated with what’s known as a “runner’s high” because it releases endorphins that make us feel energized. Kindness also creates a “helper’s high” because it releases the same endorphins². Endorphins make us feel energized, but they naturally kill pain as well. Kindness is another easy way to boost your endorphins and up your energy while decreasing pain. According to Christine Carter from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, “about half of the participants in one study reported that they feel stronger and more energetic after helping others; many also reported feeling calmer and less depressed, with increased feelings of self-worth.”
The pleasure center in the brain lights up when something is enjoyable to us. As you might guess, kindness activates our brain’s pleasure center. When we are kind to others, our brains light up as if we experienced the good deed ourselves. This phenomenon is associated with the “helper’s high.” One reason kindness may be so effective in inducing pleasure is that our brain’s pleasure center responds stronger when the event is unanticipated⁴. When we are kind to others, we can often witness their surprise, which may induce our pleasure. We also can be kind unexpectedly, which can make the pleasure effect even more potent.
One crucial way that kindness affects the brain is by reducing stress. One study in the American Public Health Association journal found that “helping others predicted reduced mortality specifically by buffering the association between stress and mortality⁵.” Excessive stress is hard on our minds and bodies, so managing it is essential for our mental and overall wellness. Kindness is one fundamental way to protect our minds against stress. According to one study in the Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science Journal, people who are consistently kind have 23% less stress hormone cortisol and age slower than the average person⁶. Acts of kindness buffer the adverse effects of stress, helping us stay happier and maintain the best emotional wellness possible.
Kindness is an excellent way to help lower feelings of anxiety and depression. One study from the University of Texas found that people who regularly volunteer experienced fewer symptoms of depression than those who don’t⁷.
Another study from the University of British Columbia studied a group of anxious people⁸. The participants performed at least six acts of kindness per week for a month. After just one month, those anxious people experienced a decrease in social avoidance and increased positive moods. Dr. Stephen Post, Ph.D. professor from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, has found that kindness is beneficial for our mental and physical health, delaying mortality and reducing depression⁹.
By releasing so many vital hormones and neurotransmitters, kindness directly impacts our brain for the better. It’s a free, natural way to improve our mood and overall happiness. By offering a helping hand to others, we can positively impact their lives and happiness while also benefiting our own. One of the best things about how kindness affects the brain is that it is side-effect free. Kindness is a natural, easy way to increase our wellbeing and live longer, healthier lives.
Though kindness is considered as innate behavior by many, do you know that kindness can also be taught? Learn more about it: How to be Kind: Can Kindness be Taught?
Being kind can also start with one's self. By developing our self-compassion, we tend to look the world at a more gentler gaze. Learn more about it: 10 Powerful Ways to Be Kinder to Yourself in 2021
(1) Oxytocin (n.d) in Dictionary.com
(2) Jepson, M; Kenworthy, P (Hosts). (October 2020) The Science Behind Kindness and How It Benefits Your Health
(3) Aknin, LB; Barrington-Leigh, CP; Dunn, EW; Helliwell, JF; Burns, J; Biswas-Diener, R; Kemeza, I; Nyende, P.; Ashton-James, CE; Norton, MI (2013) Prosocial spending and well-being: Cross-cultural evidence for a psychological universal
(4) Emory University Health Sciences Center (April 2001) Human Brain Loves Surprises, Research Reveals
(5) Poulin MJ, Brown SL, Dillard AJ, Smith DM (September 2013) Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality
(6) McCraty R, Barrios-Choplin B, Rozman D, Atkinson M, Watkins AD (April-June 1998) The impact of a new emotional self-management program on stress, emotions, heart rate variability, DHEA and cortisol
(7) Germanotta, C; Hamilton, DR (May 2018) Feeling anxious or depressed? Try kindness
(8) The University of British Columbia (July 2015) Kindness may help socially anxious people relax, says new research by Dr. Lynn Alden
(9) Post, SG (2005) Altuism, happiness, and health: it's good to be good