The Science of Kindness

Kindness and compassion are considered to be instrumental buffers for the negative effects of stress, thought to be perpetuated by strengthening positive interpersonal connections. Several studies have demonstrated these effects in the clinical setting, with kindness being shown to elicit elevation in mood, increase in altruism, and the promotion of connection to others.

The Science of Kindness

What is Kindness?

Kindness is considered to be a form of positive social connection which is shown to buffer stress via multifactorial mechanisms. Positive interpersonal connexion is produced as a consequence of pro-social behavior, for example, donations, volunteerism, and providing social support. alternative descriptions of kindness include compassion, generosity, and care, among other related terms. Through engagement in pro-social behavior, happiness is induced, which in turn, can reinforce continued pro-social behavior.

As part of the effect of prosocial behavior, is the induction of other-praising moral emotion, a term which describes the feelings of positivity generated when witnessing authors engage in virtuous acts such as generosity, selflessness, love, and kindness. Uplifting feelings physical sensations, including warmth and tearfulness.

The Acute Impact of Viewing Kindness Media an Emotional Response and Generosity

A study published in 2021 examined by the kindness media could affect viewers of this material in a real-world pediatric healthcare setting. Both parents and staff were randomized to view kindness media or standard televised children programming; participants were then asked to complete self-rated emotions in a survey before watching the media and subsequently complete this survey after 8 minutes of viewing.

Participants were informed of the receipt of a gift card for participation and after they completed the survey, asked whether they wanted to keep the gift card or donate it. Among the 50 participants surveyed, those who watched kindness media reported significantly greater feelings of happiness, calmness, gratefulness, and reduction in irritation.

Moreover, kindness media caused participants to feel inspired, touched, or moved. In addition, those who watched the media were more generous, with 85% donating their gift card, compared to 54% of those who viewed the standard media. Overall, kindness was concluded to increase positive emotions and promote generosity – though these findings were limited to a healthcare setting.

The Impact of Acts of Kindness on Wellbeing

In a study conducted in 2019, researchers investigated the effects of a seven-day kindness activity intervention on changes in subjective happiness in participants. The study sought to determine whether different manifestations of kindness, as narrated by the type of activity prescribed, could produce differential effects on happiness. This study supplemented an earlier systematic review and meta-analysis of the psychological effects of kindness that revealed that performing these acts boosts happiness and an overall sense of well-being.

To determine differential effects of kindness, researchers compared acts of kindness to strong social ties, novel acts of self-kindness, weak social ties, and observing kindness, as compared to a control group who were not assigned any acts of kindness. Overall, results demonstrated that performing kindness activities for a week increased happiness.

In addition, there was a strong positive correlation between the number of kind acts and an increase in feelings of happiness. Interestingly, the effect did not differ across the different types of experimental groups, which suggested that kindness to strong and weak ties, kindness to self, and simply observing active kindness all equally induce positive effects on happiness.

Kindness

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The Effect of Kindness on Pain Management

It has long been known that mental processes can exert influence over pain intensity as compared to physiological processes. In keeping with this knowledge, the use of psychological treatments more generally, as well as specific interventions that are based on active self-kindness, such as mindfulness, cognitive behavior therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy, have been used, on shown, to be beneficial for those suffering from long term pain.

Compassion-focused therapy (CFT), a form of psychotherapy that integrates techniques from CBT as well as concepts from evolutionary, social, developmental, and Buddhist psychology, as well as neuroscience, is designed to teach compassion. CFT is particularly useful for those who suffer from high levels of self-criticism and shame, which subsequently results in difficulty feeling warmth toward and being kind to, themselves or their peers.

A study that used interventions based on compassion and loving-kindness investigated how this affected conceptualization of persistent pain. Loving-kindness is an accessible way to develop soothing systems which may be relatively underdeveloped in some people do too everyday precious or past difficulties.

Compassion-focused exercises focused on helping participants look for occurrences of patterns playing out in their experiences in a safe space, intending to emphasize that the patterns observed how cool is by natural responses, and should not be attributed to weaknesses, mistakes, or as a result of personal failure

The study took place in a routine clinical setting, in an uncontrolled, unpowered study. Participants were asked to complete a survey both pre and post-intervention. This revealed that patients who engaged in the intervention so reasonable improvements in pain distress and intensity, anxiety, self-efficacy, and depression. Patients further noted that they experience changes in the categories of feeling different, doing things differently. Therefore, researchers concluded that interventions based on compassion, which include mindfulness and loving-kindness exercises can potentially have clinical use in routine pain management strategies.

The feelings elicited by kindness include pleasant feelings and rewarding effects; that is, a general reporting of a positive state, our reliance on neurobiological processes, and molecular principles. These processes involve the limbic motivation and reward circuits in the brain which are autoregulated.

Specifically, oxytocin and vasopressin are two major hormones that are produced. Oxytocin is associated with stress reduction; it achieves this by inhibiting sympathoadrenal and stress response activity, which includes preventing the release of adrenal corticoids. It acts both on the psychological level, increasing bond formation, as well as on the physiological level, via inhibiting stress hormone release and producing opiate-like effects and/or the release of nitric oxide.

In addition to oxytocin, catecholamines, e.g., norepinephrine and dopamine, are released, and these are involved in pair bond formation. Dopamine antagonists which induce reward and pleasure, release oxytocin, and interactions between oxytocin and dopamine have been reported in rats, as well as humans.

Interactions between oxytocin in catecholamines are thought to provide a mechanism for rewarding or reinforcing pair bonding. Furthermore, catecholamines may be required to activate or reward behaviors, such as arousal and selective attention, as well as the effect of oxytocin and vasopressin in the CNS.

The Effect of Kindness on the Common Cold

Alongside the well-being effects, kindness can also reduce the incidence of the common cold. This comes from evidence sourced from a randomized controlled trial in which patients who rated their clinicians as showing greater empathy demonstrated a reduction in common cold severity and duration, as well as increases in immune response levels.

Kindness, whatever form it takes, appears to induce physiological and psychological responses in beneficial participants. Early results from randomized controlled trials are promising and indicate that kindness-focused interventions alright all tangible fields of exploration with regards to pain management, mental health, and in the context of being a protective factor against physical illness such as the cold. The effect of kindness is also scalable, as they induce feeding and responses in the individual as well as recipients.

References

  • Penlington C. 2019 Exploring a compassion-focused intervention for persistent pain in a group setting. Br J Pain. doi: 10.1177/2049463718772148.
  • Rowland L, Curry OS. (2019) A range of kindness activities boost happiness. J Soc Psychol.  doi: 10.1080/00224545.2018.1469461.
  • Fryburg DA, Ureles SD, Myrick JG, et al. (2021) Kindness Media Rapidly Inspires Viewers and Increases Happiness, Calm, Gratitude, and Generosity in a Healthcare Setting. Front Psychol. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.591942.  
  • Rakel DP, Hoeft TJ, Barrett BP, et al. (2009) Practitioner empathy and the duration of the common cold. Fam Med.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jan 18, 2022

Hidaya Aliouche

Written by

Hidaya Aliouche

Hidaya is a science communications enthusiast who has recently graduated and is embarking on a career in the science and medical copywriting. She has a B.Sc. in Biochemistry from The University of Manchester. She is passionate about writing and is particularly interested in microbiology, immunology, and biochemistry.

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