The Kindness Series - Part 2 (The Science and Power of Kindness)

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What does it really mean to be kind? How do we learn it and what force drives us to execute kindness? Our intern, Bailey O'Mara, wrote a research article about this and came up with some interesting facts. 

The average person is unaware of the effect they have on the lives of those around them, mainly because of the natural human tendency to become infatuated with sequentially focusing on our personal tasks and challenges throughout the day. If we look at life with a macroscopic lense we realize every action has a consequence, whether or not we intend to cause change to our environment, it will happen. While we usually focus on our own experiences and the events of our lives, it is equally important to think about how we affect others.

Considering this perspective on human interaction we could focus on the negative effects of our actions; for example, choosing not to throw out your gum but instead spitting it on the sidewalk, eventually causing someone to step in it, ruining their shoes. This is merely the initial effect of our choices, those people who were upset, delayed, or frustrated by our actions are likely to then continue this mentality, which will in turn have a butterfly effect making even more people unhappy.

On the other hand, the impact we have on the world around us can be utilized as a tool. If we choose to be considerate, responsible, and kind, the positive impact we have can be extensive. Learning these skills starts as a child, when the brain is developing our cognitive responses and habits.

The ability to process kindness can be derived from two major aspects of early brain development, a child’s home environment and the learning they do at school. A study at the University of Wisconsin has determined “The brain is constantly changing in response to environmental factors… we can actually enhance well-being by training that induces neuroplastic changes in the brain” (Tenenbaum D). Neuroplastic changes affect the function and interconnectedness of the cells in the brain.

The importance of the research conducted was a conclusion that specific teachable practices can “cultivate new connections in the brain and enhance the function of neural networks that support aspects of prosocial behavior, including empathy, altruism, and kindness” (Tenenbaum D). The practices can be as simple as observing empathy, giving gifts, and sharing, all of which are learned as a child.

Kindness is hardwired into the neural circuitry of our brain, meaning that instead of learning kindness we simply need to develop and foster its importance from a young age. According to a recent study in Science, people who spend more of their income on others instead of themselves are happier. Other neuroscience studies focusing on the areas of the brain that are activated by pleasure have discovered,‘charitable giving’ causes these areas to ‘light up’ especially when it is entirely voluntary. Researchers concluded that the brain is responsible for the natural warmth we feel from kindness. Interestingly, another study on charitable giving discovered a connection between moral processing and charity. Those who volunteered more had developed a stronger bond between the “moral” and “reward” areas of the brain, making “altruism” feel even better in the future (Simon-Thomas).

The circular nature of life is responsible for the spread of kindness, the shared observation from each of these studies is that the kindness we learn has a massive impact on our neural pathways, and as a result will determine whether or not we are kind and empathetic in the future.

The importance of kindness extends much further than we consider, and if everyone contributes to their community, their home, and the people in their lives by performing one act of kindness each day, the impact of their actions will create a better world for everyone around them.  

- Bailey O'Mara (B Kind intern)

Reference sources:

Simon-Thomas, E. R. (2008). Is kindness it’s own reward? UC Berkeley: Greater Good Science Center http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/

Tenenbaum, D. (2012). Changing brains for the better; article documents benefits of multiple practices. University of Wisconsin, Madison: News http://www.news.wisc.edu/20572