The New Oxford American Dictionary defines kindness as “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.” A recent article on the benefits of kindness defined kindness as doing something nice for someone without being asked and without expecting anything in return. Examples of kindness include holding the door for the person behind you, inviting a new colleague to join you for lunch, or taking a meal to someone who is sick or has had a death in the family.
Kindness is also an international affair. World Kindness Day has been celebrated on November 13 each year since 1998, promoted by the World Kindness Movement (WKM). The WKM is a non-governmental organization with no religious or political affiliation whose mission statement is to “inspire individuals and connect nations to create a kinder world.”
Health Benefits of Kindness
Besides benefitting the recipient of the kind act, kindness can actually improve the physical and mental health of the person performing the kindness. When you do something kind for someone, you have an increased level of oxytocin in your system. Known as the “love hormone,” increased levels of oxytocin are associated with bonding: the bond between a mother and her infant, the romantic love between two people, and the bond between people and their pets. Physically, studies have shown that increased levels of oxytocin help to lower blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health. Oxytocin is also connected to feelings of greater self-esteem and optimism.
The act of being kind also elevates levels of serotonin. Serotonin is the “feel-good” hormone and allows brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate. According to the Hormone Health Network website, serotonin aids in sleep reduces depression and anxiety and helps with bone health. Serotonin levels are also increased by performing acts of kindness for others. Increased levels of endorphins help to reduce sensations of pain and decrease anxiety. In addition, numerous studies show that people who are routinely kind to others produce 23% less cortisol (a stress hormone) than people who don’t. This results in less stress, which results in better overall health and slows the aging process.
The Role of Kindness in Substance Abuse Recovery
As shown above, performing acts of kindness clearly provides physical and mental health benefits: increased oxytocin promotes greater self-esteem and a more optimistic outlook on life; serotonin reduces anxiety and depression and aids sleep; increased endorphin levels (similar to the boost you get from exercise) reduce sensations of pain and reduces stress levels and anxiety; and a lower level of cortisol results in less stress and may lead to greater longevity. In fact, people who are suffering from depression are frequently told to exercise and to do volunteer work for the mental health benefits of those activities.
Kindness also helps with substance abuse recovery. When we are abusing drugs or alcohol or another addictive behavior, our focus is on ourselves and our next drink or whatever substance or behavior we crave. Performing an act of kindness or service for someone helps to turn our focus from ourselves to others. In fact, performing acts of service is an important aspect of the 12-Step philosophy.
Performing acts of kindness also aid us in building connections with other people. We may feel a greater sense of connection to the people we are serving, but if our service is as part of a group (like a church group serving lunch at a homeless shelter or a high-school club participating in a local effort to clean up a local area), we may also feel a greater sense of connection to the people we are serving with. Performing acts of kindness can open us up to new possibilities, and we may begin to focus more on what we have in common with other people, rather than the differences that divide us. By serving others, we start to emerge from the self-imposed isolation that is common with addiction.
Be Kind to Yourself
If you are in recovery, it’s important to direct some of those acts of kindness toward yourself as well. People suffering from addictions tend to criticize themselves harshly, which does not aid in recovery. We need to learn to like and love ourselves in order to fully recover. It can be helpful to write a list of the qualities about yourself that you like–a love letter to yourself if you will. If meditation is part of your spiritual practice, consider doing a loving-kindness meditation, where you direct kind intentions toward yourself and others. Scripts and more specific directions are widely available online.
An act of kindness doesn’t need to be elaborate or time-consuming to benefit both you and others. Smile at a stranger. Give a coworker a compliment. Run an errand for a neighbor. The benefit to you will be just as great to you as it will to them, and the world will be a kinder place.