As we draw towards the end of Mental health Awareness Week we’d like to offer a positive psychology perspective on the theme of kindness to take forward.
Positive psychology (PP) is a science that studies how we flourish in life so here’s a PP dip into kindness and why it’s good for us. But first, let’s just touch briefly on what can happen when we don’t encounter the benefits of kindness.
It’s hard to write this without making reference to the Covid 19 pandemic as we find ourselves living unfamiliar versions of our lives. With the appearance of such a threat we may experience negative emotions such as fear or confusion and our reaction tends to be to narrow our focus on protecting ourselves.
Our fight or flight responses to threat are still deeply ingrained in us from back when we needed to be on high alert to the dangers around us, like being killed off by a large, woolly animal. The threat of a virus and the emotions that many of us are feeling as we’re physically isolated from people we love can accelerate levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies, and studies have shown that this in turn can have a detrimental affect on our immune system.
Positive psychology offers us so much research and many interventions to change and the smallest things can have the biggest impact.
What can kindness do for me?
The director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory (PEP Lab) Barbara Fredrickson Ph.D. is a leading researcher of emotions and explains in her Broaden and Build theory (1) that when we experience positive emotions we are more likely to build connection with others and building connections leads to more positive emotions and around we go in a happy spiral.
As social animals, we are naturally drawn to connection in order to live well. When we experience a positive emotion, let’s use joy as an example, we become playful and this expands our imagination rather than focusing on what we need to do to survive like we would if we were frightened or disappointed. This ignites in us an impulse to look upwards and outwards, taking in all that is there for us to build on our connections and our relationships, our knowledge, our creativity. Just look at the broadening and building that has happened over the past weeks for a real-life example.
Choosing to come out on our doorsteps or look out from our windows to appreciate key workers has reinforced our sense of connection. The weekly small act of kindness that many of us are taking part in raises our oxytocin levels (known as the ‘hug’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone). This leads to many health benefits such as lowering of blood pressure, or reducing feelings associated with depression and it is also believed to have a calming effect when you are in stressful situations, just like a hug would do. So in those few moments of clapping and sharing the moment with neighbours we are also picking up on their oxytocin levels. From behind masks we make eye contact with those around us as we pass each other, stepping aside a little to give space in a shop or on a street. In doing this we create a ‘micro moment of love’ (2). Yep, I said ‘love’ and that may not be something you thought you felt for your fellow shoppers or joggers but this is based on Fredrickson’s research too. Such a small gesture gives us the little lift that we need.
What is your reaction when you witness others doing incredibly kind gestures? I’m thinking of Captain Sir Thomas Moore here. How many others have gone on to do their own kind deeds ‘inspired’ by Captain Tom? Inspired? Yes, kindness is catching.
Think about a time when you have been the receiver of an act of kindness. Did someone offer you some help? Give you a gift? A call? Send you a random message? What positive emotions did you feel? Did it spur you to do something else that made you happy? Did you open up to others afterwards? Did you see the world in a slightly more positive light? Or go on to do something kind for someone else? Think of this as broadening your scope for possibilities and building on your strengths for your own personal growth.
Returning to those stress hormones. The threat may be here for a while and our fear, which by the way is a valid and much needed emotion, may cause us to be a little self- centered at times. We are after all protecting ourselves. But how about nurturing ourselves with a little self-kindness and before you even consider thinking that self-kindness or self-compassion is weak or self-centered, remember that you are just as human as the next human and the next. If you feel that others deserve kindness, then why shouldn’t you? Come on, we’re all in this humanity thing together. Dr Kristin Neff (3) is an expert on self-compassion and offers us a plethora of research on the benefits. When you are kind to yourself you are in a better position to extend that kindness to others, and we’ve already covered the wonderful effects of that. Do something for yourself to boost that oxytocin and you’ll be surprised at how the urge to be kind to someone else naturally occurs.
Kindness is catching but unlike the virus, there’s no need to isolate yourself from it.
We designed our free parent/child resource to guide you through some research- based resources that will help with navigating through challenges. We offer something for your wellbeing and also activities that you can do with your child to foster your relationship and learn together. Forming habits that contribute to our overall wellbeing take practice. Just as regular exercise keeps us physically fit and healthy, so do emotional wellbeing activities. Joining a gym doesn’t improve your fitness, you have to go! Just thinking about looking after your mental wellbeing isn’t going to have an impact. It takes work.
We would love to know your methods of sustaining your wellbeing. What helps you to keep going? What are your habits?
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