Approximately two years ago, the science writer Marta Zaraska contacted me as she was interested in kindness and stress. She was curious to know if every-day acts of kindness could lower her stress levels.
So, I measured her cortisol levels — the main hormone involved with stress, which is easily detectable in the saliva — every day for one week. On some days (I did not know which one) she engaged with some random acts of kindness to people she knew or to strangers.
This story immediately came back to me when I found out that this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week had kindness as its core theme. This annual occasion is UK’s national week to raise awareness of mental health and mental health problems, and to inspire action to promote the message of good mental health for all.
We all need some kindness at these difficult times of the pandemic.
And yes, I will tell you what happens to Marta’s cortisol, at the end of this blog.
Is kindness beneficial to the kind person?
For those of you who wonder why such a serious clinical academic as myself (hahaha!) should spend time studying such an ethereal topic as “kindness” (even if my artistic collaboration with Marta is not a study by any stretch of imagination), it is probably important to highlight that the effects of altruism and kindness on mental health — the mental health of the giver, not of the receiver — have been the subject of large and methodologically-sound studies for decades.
And the results of these studies have been amazingly consistent: helping others leads to increased well-being, no matter if this altruistic behaviour is expressed through volunteering, charitable donations, or acts of kindness to individuals that we do or do not know personally.
For example, a study in 2015 asked to more than 70 volunteers to engage in “prosocial behaviours” (i.e., acts of kindness) when interacting with strangers or acquaintances, doing things such as holding open a door, helping with schoolwork and asking someone if they need help.
They found that the days with more prosocial behaviours were associated with higher levels of “positive affect” (i.e., happiness) and better overall mental health.
But, you may wonder, it is easy to be kind at normal times, when we don’t have to worry about our own survival.
What if we are struggling — like most of us are now, at the times of coronavirus, isolated by the lockdown and worried about own health, and the health of those we love?
Well, it turns out that kindness is really beneficial to kind people especially if they are struggling.
In another large study on more that 2,200 people, those who were struggling with a range of problems — studying, saving money, controlling their tempers, losing weight or finding employment — were more motivated to address their problem after being offered the opportunity to help (by giving advice) others struggling with the same issue.
Yes, those who gave advice improved in their motivation, and experienced a boost in confidence. This was a randomized, controlled, double-blind study, the highest standard of evidence in science.
In yet another, even more telling (and touching) study, individuals who were providing full-time home-care to a spouse, because of illness or disability, were asked to record how much time they were spending helping, and also what were their emotions during the same time period, at random moments during the day (so-called “ecological momentary assessment”, or EMA, method). These people were struggling caregivers to spouses who had severe, chronic illnesses, such as dementia, cancer or stroke.
The amazing finding: the time spent helping predicted greater levels of positive affect in the caregivers, especially among those caregivers who perceived themselves as “interdependent” with the (care-recipient) spouse. Interdependency was defined as “feeling that they shared a common fate”… but I would call it “being in love with each other”.
Many more studies on kindness and mental health are summarised in this year Mental Health Awareness Week webpage dedicate to this topic.
So, is the pandemic making all of us kinder?
Well, judging from headlines, yes.
Newspapers and magazines are all telling us stories of kindness during the pandemic, from Elle to the New York Times to The Guardian. And let’s welcome these nice, heart-warming stories, since the news that we are receiving also speak of countries stealing personal protective equipment from each other, and of an increase in fraudulent activities exploiting the most vulnerable in this situation.
And of course, the choice of the Mental Health Act Foundation for this week highlights the need to celebrate kindness because of its singular ability to unlock our shared humanity.
So, how can we all benefit from this “epidemic of kindness”?
This week is also a “call for action” to do more acts of kindness — for our own mental wellbeing as much as for the wellbeing of those we are kind to.
The dedicated list of acts of kindness suggested by the Mental Health Foundation is endless, from making a cup of tea for someone you live with, to sending a motivational text to a friend in difficulties, from donating to food banks, to offering to skill-share with a friend via video call.
This week, I have spent hours on a video call with two friends to teach them how to make sourdough bread (yes I know, it is a little bit of a stereotype at the moment, but I like it!)
How about Marta’s cortisol?
So, I am not going to give away too many details — you can read them in her book which should be out soon.
But guess what: her cortisol levels did drop (i.e., she was less stressed) during the “days of kindness”.
Of course, this was not a research study, it was only an artistic collaboration.
But yet, I like to think that, together, Marta and I have stumbled on something real.
That somehow, while she was busy being kind, her body and her brain knew that she was doing something good — not only for others, but also, and foremost, for her.
Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 18–24 May 2020. The theme is kindness.