Whether giving or receiving it, kindness does a body good.
On a Saturday morning in February, more than 400 people gathered in Cincinnati’s Fountain Square for a peaceful march. But what made this event different from other recent marches around the country and the world is that this wasn’t a protest, most of the participants were children—and they had gathered to promote kindness.
“The tone and tenor of national politics [this past election] has been mean and demeaning. Our kids feel this,” he says. “I thought how great it would be to have some positive messaging that could get our kids out and feel like they could participate and make a difference.”
He reached out to his friend Sally O’Callaghan, and the idea for the Children’s Kindness March was born. Within hours they had announced it on Facebook and it immediately started to gain traction.
“We wanted to focus on children for this march because we felt it was something they needed,” Bill explains. “Most kids naturally ‘get’ kindness. Hopefully, we can put some positivity into our community and get people to focus on what is important…which is kindness.”
The idea of spreading kindness is nothing new; we teach it to our children and we intrinsically know it’s important. But we may overlook how good it is for us both physically and emotionally. Whether we’re giving it or receiving it, kindness has powerful lasting effects.
“One of the immediate side effects of kindness is that it makes us feel happier,” explains David R. Hamilton, Ph.D., author of The Five Side Effects of Kindness. “It brings a sense of connection, warmth, gratitude and happiness.”
Some studies also have connected acts of kindness with reduced depression and anxiety, and in addition to positive emotional reactions, kindness has been linked with physical benefits.
“Focusing on the feelings of compassion and kindness actually cause physical changes in the brain,” David says, adding that most of these changes are seen in the left prefrontal cortex—an area associated with positive emotions and self-control. Kindness also produces oxytocin, which is often called the “love hormone,” as well as elevating levels of dopamine and serotonin.
In addition to making us feel happier, that has biological effects that can help lower blood pressure, regulate cholesterol and lower levels of inflammation in the body.
Passing it on
As if the individual benefits didn’t provide enough reason to rethink kindness, it also has a viral effect. Simply witnessing an act of kindness can make us feel more inclined to be kind, and David says that’s due to a one-two punch that begins with the inspiration we feel from watching that act of kindness.
“A person feels uplifted by either receiving or witnessing kindness,” he explains. “That moves us to imitate what we witnessed or experienced.”
That can trigger the “pay it forward” phenomenon, creating a domino effect among all those who participate. But for all its benefits, David has found there’s one caveat for reaping the rewards of kindness: you can’t fake it.
“It’s nature’s catch-22; the side effects only occur when kindness is genuine,” he says. “The biological effects come through the felt connection and elevation that genuine kindness produces. You don’t get the positive side effects if you’re only looking to gain.”
Read more: Start a Ripple of Kindness in Your Community
Paula Felps is the Science Editor for Live Happy magazine.