The Big Happiness Interview: Dr David Hamilton on why being kind makes you happy

The Big Happiness Interview: Dr David Hamilton on why being kind makes you happy

‘I crept away and cried.’

Dr David Hamilton, author of The Five Side Effects of Kindness, is telling me how he was bullied at school when he was 17 and how awful it was.

‘I often wonder if things would have been the way they were for me if kindness had been on our school curriculum,’ he says.

David is now a passionate advocate of kindness and writes and speaks extensively on how being kinder can impact us both physiologically and psychologically.

David is a scientist and after completing his PhD in organic chemistry, worked in R&D in the pharmaceutical industry, developing drugs for cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Inspired by the placebo effect, and how some people’s conditions would improve because they believed a placebo was a real drug, he left the industry to write books and educate people in how they can harness their mind and emotions to improve their mental and physical health.

Author of 11 bestselling books, David is here to talk to Metro.co.uk about why being kinder will not only make you feel happier, but healthier and younger too.

How are kindness and happiness linked?

Recent research shows that kindness is a tonic for mental health. Indeed, numerous scientific studies now show that kindness practices boost happiness and protect against depression.

For example, studies that invite volunteers to carry out acts of kindness over the course of a day, a week, or even a month or more, all show that those being kind become happier as a consequence.

They also turn out to become happier than people they are compared against who are not asked to do acts of kindness (typically known as ‘control groups’).

Why is that?

Good feelings occur because on a biochemical level, kindness elevates levels of the brain’s natural versions of morphine and heroin, which we know as endogenous opioids. Plus kindness elevates levels of dopamine.

Together, they produce the natural high that’s sometimes called ‘Helper’s High’.

So if you want to get happier, start volunteering?

Yes, if you want to stave off depression, sign up to a volunteering scheme. Studies show that people who do regular volunteering work have much lower rates of depression than the general population.

It’s not that people who are less likely to be depressed are more likely to volunteer, which some have argued is the case, but that giving in the service of others is actually protective against depression.

It seems that feelings induced by kindness buffer some of the effects of stress. They don’t eliminate it but help us become more resilient to stress.

In so doing, a build-up of stress is less likely to occur at a level that might trigger depression. It will also improve your health physically.

If you want to stave off depression, sign up to a volunteering scheme

Physically?

The experience of kindness tends to produce feelings of connection or what we call ‘emotional warmth’, which in turn produce the hormone oxytocin in the brain and throughout the body. It helps to reduce blood pressure by triggering release of nitric oxide, which dilates (expands) blood vessels.

Oxytocin is now known as a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone (protects the cardiovascular system) and thus kindness itself is cardioprotective.

Going even further, oxytocin also counteracts free radicals and inflammation, which are known to lead to heart disease and accelerate ageing, therefore not only is kindness good for the heart but it might also slow ageing.

You’ll look younger too?

Yes, kindness is better than botox!

Really?

Yes, recent studies on the effect of the Buddhists’ Loving-Kindness Meditation, (which helps you cultivate a sentiment of love, kindness, and compassion for yourself and others) showed that it will make you physiologically younger.

How does that work?

You might have heard of telomeres. They’re end caps on DNA akin to the plastic end caps on shoelaces, which are called aglets. Just as aglets stop shoelaces from unravelling, telomeres stop DNA from unravelling. They essentially protect DNA.

But over time, telomeres wear down and become shorter. Their length and rate of wear is now known to be an accurate indicator of a person’s biological age.

Slowing telomere loss is therefore a goal for some anti-ageing researchers. In research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers compared the telomeres of people practicing the Loving Kindness meditation for six weeks with a control group and with people practicing mindfulness meditation. While telomere loss was recorded in the control group and in those who did mindfulness, there was no telomere loss at all in those who did the Loving Kindness meditation.

Scientists are still debating why kindness seems to be protective in this way, but it may be due to an anti-inflammatory effect produced by the feelings that kind sentiments produce.

Kindness is better than botox

So how do we do that meditation?

Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Think of people in your life and for each person, simply mentally say: ‘May you be happy, and well, and safe, and may you feel at ease’. Say it three times for each person.

Typically, you actually start with yourself so you wish yourself these sentiments three times first, as in ‘may I be happy, and well, etc.’, then move onto others.

You can choose anyone at all, from loved ones, friends, neighbours, work colleagues, even people you don’t know but whom you see around.

You can also say it for difficult people – people who cause you stress or who may have angered or upset you. The practice usually ends with extending these sentiments to ‘all sentient beings’.

You can sit with the practice for as little or as long as you wish, covering as many people as you wish. This will have a profound impact on your relationship with yourself and others.

How does kindness affect our relationships?

This is one of the most obvious points. We all know that we like people who show us kindness. This is because kindness reduces the emotional distance between two people and so we feel more ‘bonded’.

It’s something that is so strong in us that it’s actually a genetic thing. We are wired for kindness. Our evolutionary ancestors had to learn to cooperate with one another. The stronger the emotional bonds within groups, the greater were the chances of survival and so ‘kindness genes’ were etched into the human genome.

So today when we are kind to each other we feel a connection and new relationships are forged, or existing ones strengthened. And it’s contagious too.

Kindness is contagious?

Yes, when we’re kind we inspire others to be kind and studies at Harvard and Yale show that it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends – to three degrees of separation.

Just as a pebble creates waves when it is dropped in a pond, so acts of kindness ripple outwards touching others’ lives and inspiring kindness everywhere the wave goes.

With Covid, there’s been a lot of talk about the ‘r-number’ – the way of rating coronavirus or any disease’s ability to spread. R is the number of people that one infected person will pass on a virus to, on average. It doesn’t just work with Covid, but with kindness too. If the R-number for kindness was three, it means that each single act of kindness spreads to three times three times three people, thus affecting 27 people. If the R-number was five, on the other hand, then 125 people, would be on the receiving end of the kindness ripple.

Research does suggest that the R-number for kindness is somewhere between three and five. You can touch a lot of people in your life by being kind to a few people every day.

How to try the seven-day kindness challenge

Do one act of kindness, following these three rules…

And remember, you don’t have to do big things to make a difference. It’s the small things in large numbers that matter most because opportunities for these arise every day.

The Five Side Effects of Kindness (Hay House, £10.99) by Dr David Hamilton is out now.

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