“The world is a jungle”, “you can only rely on yourself”, “every man for himself” – I think we’ve all heard such statements so many times that we actually start believing them to be true. In many (even scientific) environments, the importance of competition and accumulation of your (and only your) recognition is emphasized. Or maybe the idea of being a nice person is worth our reconsideration?
In 2008, in a prestigious Science magazine, a research report was published with the meaningful title: “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness”. Researchers have noticed that people who were asked to buy a gift for another person showed a higher level of happiness after the purchase than people who spent money on themselves. The question of whether cash gives joy or not is complicated. However, we can say with high probability that money gives more happiness when we spend it on other people. Psychologists from the University of Toronto and Cambridge have proved that pro-social orientation, in other words, caring for people in our environment, promotes self-esteem and satisfaction with relationships.
Also, it has been empirically confirmed that giving and being kind has several other advantages in terms of our mental functioning and health. For instance, according to David Hamilton, MD, being a nice person, has a healing effect on our hearts. Oxytocin, which is conducive to lowering blood pressure, is largely responsible for this effect. Oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone, is also essential in reducing inflammation and the number of free radicals. It has also been shown that practicing Buddhist meditation of kindness and compassion is conducive to reducing inflammation in the body and the physiological response to stress (the entire article is available here http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2695992/). There is also evidence of a connection between kindness towards others and the activity of the vagus nerve, which plays a vital role in regulating heart function and reducing inflammation. Kindness also seems to be necessary for the immune system in general. Human immunity is fostered by our kindness, but it turns out that even the good deeds of others are valuable to our immune system. An interesting experiment was carried out by Harvard researchers. They showed the participants a film about the activities of Mother Teresa, and then… measured the level of immunoglobulins A in their saliva. Immunoglobulins A are responsible for protecting mucous membranes against microorganisms. It turned out that watching the charitable activities of Mother Teresa resulted in an increase in these immunoglobulins. Do you read the biographies of famous rich people and businessmen? You’re probably reading the wrong books. To improve your immunity, it’s better to learn about the lives of philanthropists.
Being kind and giving seem to have a good effect on our physical health, but they can also give you a lot of pleasure. Some researchers point to the phenomenon of “helper’s high”, similar to “runner’s high”- a surge of energy followed by inner peace and a sense of bliss. The underlying mechanisms are identical in both cases. Euphoria in the kind helpers may be associated with increased levels of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Moreover, there are at least a few reasons to believe that giving and being kind contributes to the activation of the nucleus accumbens, the ventral striatum and some parts of the prefrontal cortex – these areas are part of the so-called the reward system, also known as the pleasure center.
Forgiveness also seems to be quite beneficial. Forgiveness is probably even less popular than kindness, and that’s a shame. In the course of evolution, we have developed the ability to forgive because it positively affects the functioning of groups. If people were not able to forgive, the feeling of harm and thus the desire to retaliate would escalate in social groups leading to their destruction. Forgiveness stops the spiral of retaliation, helps to reduce feelings of hostility. Probably, a significant part of the forgiveness process is played by the already mentioned oxytocin, which gives us a sense of bond and trust, while the signals from fear centers are obscured. This is quite a remarkable ability, given that we are social animals. But what individual advantages can we derive from forgiveness? It is believed that in severe interpersonal conflicts, forgiveness is a healthy solution that helps us avoid chronic tension and stress. It is impossible to avoid unfair and harmful situations in life, and disputes cannot always be explained. Forgiveness allows us to reduce negative emotions that inevitably accompany life conflicts. It turns out that people who are generally willing to forgive are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. Besides, they declare a higher level of psychological well-being compared to people who take delight in cool calculation and revenge. The former group also suffers from heart disease less frequently.
Unfortunately, as usual in psychology, nothing is easy and obvious here. Yes, it’s not worth giving in to competitive propaganda, but going to the other extreme is not good either. While in some environments, ‘the world is a jungle’ narrative dominates, there are also environments (mainly associated with the broadly understood new age movement) that promote unconditional goodness, forgiveness, and peace for all. We can practice kindness and forgiveness, but we cannot force ourselves to do it. Emotions have been given to us by nature in the package: anger, sadness, disappointment, and other unpleasant emotions are an indispensable part of our functioning. Most mortals will never be able to eliminate negative emotions from their lives. As psychologists argue, it is also not worth trying to do so. Already in the 80s of the last century, Daniel Wegner proved that failing to accept negative emotions, suppressing them, has the opposite effect. Have you ever met a “spiritual, loving and kind person” who, in an unexpected situation, showed inadequate frustration and anger? Paradoxically, it seems that the most effective path is to become aware of your negative emotions and accept them as an indispensable part of life. It turns out that suppressing negative emotions makes it difficult to experience the positive ones fully. In general, it is good to be a kind, forgiving person, but we shouldn’t try to force things. When we experience anger or sadness, it is worth giving yourself time and space to experience them fully. It will bring us closer to being a nice person than telling ourselves that we must always be positive. Finally, an inspirational video:
Dunn, E., Aknin, L., Norton, M. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science. 319, 1687-1688.
Hamilton, D. (2010). Why kindness is good for you. Hay House.
Kelner, D. (2009). Born to be good. W.W. Norton & Company.
Le, B., Impett, E., Kogan, A., Webster, G., Cheng, C. (2013). The personal and interpersonal rewards of communal orientation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 30, 694-710.
McClelland, D., Kirchnit, C. (1988). The effect of motivational arousal through films on salivary immunoglobulin A. Psychology and Health. 2, 31-52.
McCullough, M., Pargament, K., Thoresen, C. (eds). (2000). Forgiveness: Theory, research and practice. The Guilford Press.
Ricciardi, E. et al. (2013). How the brain heals emotional wounds: the functional neuroanatomy of forgiveness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 7, 839.
Wegner, D., Schneider, D., Carter, S., White, T. (1987). Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 53, 5-13.