Over the course of the past few weeks our schools have been busy spreading kindness! Students at Pond Road Middle School had great fun during “It’s Cool to Care” week. On one particular day, our high energy middle schoolers wore their pjs to school as a reminder that kindness begins the minute we get out of bed. At Sharon Elementary School fourth graders hopped on the Kindness Week band wagon and read to their younger peers each morning. Students in grades 9-12 promoted the message by surprising members of the high school community with random acts of kindness. One morning the RHS Executive Council welcomed fellow students and staff with a tasty serving of hot chocolate as they arrived at school while, throughout the week, many wrote thank you notes to friends and faculty explaining how they have touched and made a difference in their lives.
While we, as adults, understand that kindness should be an integral part of our everyday lives, we think it is important that each of our schools incorporates specific activities and lessons to shine a spotlight on this topic. When students have opportunities to model and practice intentional lessons devoted to kindness, developing thoughtful kindhearted behavior is more likely to become a habit that will serve them well throughout their lives.
We know from experience that being kind to ourselves and to one another just feels good but there are also physiological and biochemical advantages that result from being kind. How many of us can recall our parents lamenting the gray hair we gave them? And, how many of us have, in turn, caught ourselves blurting out the phrase “You are giving me gray hair!” to our own children? Although genetics and age play major roles in our graying heads, there is also a growing body of research pointing out that stress and worry can actually speed up the aging process. We need look no further than the before and after photos of our U.S. presidents to see how the pressures of the Oval Office take a physical toll. Or closer to home, we may look at our own reflections and notice the emergence of new wrinkles that we are convinced were created by our adolescent children. Individuals who experience trauma, chronic stress, or life-altering circumstances, can actually accelerate the aging process by shortening the length of their DNA in the cellular structure causing oxidation in joints, arteries and skin and an increase the presence of free radicals.
So, if stress speeds up the aging process, what, then, is the impact of kindness? Is it possible to slow down the aging process by incorporating a practice of kindness in our daily lives? This may not be a far-fetched premise. Consider the following.
Demonstrating kindness elevates our levels of dopamine, the reward circuitry in our brain. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter that boosts our motivation, helps us to focus, and increases our ability to concentrate for longer periods of time, creates a natural feeling of exhilaration that athletes often refer to as a “runner’s high”. Dancers, musicians, and artists enter a state of flow during the creative process which activates these large scale networks of the brain. Others among us might experience a similar charge of endorphins by indulging in a piece of chocolate. When we do something good for someone else, hold the door open, offer a compliment, or smile at a stranger, we actually stimulate dopamine production.
It turns out that showing compassion is linked to higher levels of oxytocin, known as the “life” hormone. Oxytocin reduces blood pressure, decreases the level of stress hormones, and has even been known to regenerate heart muscle cells. Higher oxytocin levels also serve to reduce inflammation and protect the immune system. There are numerous studies that have found that pet owners heal more quickly from illnesses. In fact, spending just a few minutes a day petting your dog or cat automatically unleashes your happiness hormones! Acts of kindness and mindfulness, taking deep breaths at a stoplight, engaging the clerk while waiting in line, connecting with a friend in need, all create a natural release of the properties of oxytocin. This is great news for the heart!
And, don’t forget, kindness is contagious! The “Pay -it-Forward” principle relies on the concept of building community by generating a warm and fuzzy feeling that you want to pass along to another. Whether we have had the wonderful opportunity to be a recipient of someone’s good deed or have initiated our own random act of kindness by paying for the next person’s coffee in line at Starbucks, witnessing or participating in acts of kindness creates what researchers call “moral elevation”. This elevated feeling activates the sympathetic nervous system and actually calms our heart.
Just as we exercise to strengthen and tone our physical muscles, it is equally important to practice keeping our kindness muscles in good shape. It is easy and fun. Take time as well to be kind to yourself. When we treat ourselves with kindness and compassion, it becomes natural to extend it to others. As we juggle the demands of our 24/7 world – working, raising children, coordinating schedules, maintaining friendships and managing finances to name a few – don’t worry about trying to do everything perfectly. In fact, don’t try to do everything. Rather, why not try letting go of the concept of “doing” as often as possible? Replace it instead with the idea of “being”. You and your loved ones just may be pleasantly surprised with the results.
So, take heart and be kind. It does the body good. (And it certainly doesn’t hurt our world either!)