The Transformative Power of Altruistic Love

What Makes Kindness Healthy and How to Improve It

February 1, 2022

In 1933, the Frank family escaped to the Netherlands to seek asylum from rapidly intensifying German anti-Semitism. Despite Anne Frank’s parents’ attempts to peacefully raise their family in another country, the horrors of war and the Nazi Party followed them. The Franks were trapped in Amsterdam after the German occupation of the Netherland in 1940. By 1942, Jewish persecution forced the Franks into hiding in a secret annex in her father’s Amsterdam office. For over two years, the Frank family lived in this secret chamber with four other refugees. Although the family was later arrested and Anne and her family became victims of the Holocaust, their survival in the secret room was made possible by several people who showed deep kindness to the Franks. These careful friends brought the family food, supplies, and news from the outside world. Their friendship and kindness were lifelines for the Franks, especially Anne, who wrote about her thoughts and experiences in confinement. The unselfish kindness and dedicated compassion of these helpers brought hope to the family during this incredibly dangerous period of history.

What is Kindness?

Kindness, or altruistic love, is an orientation of the self toward others. Kindness is shown regardless of whether or not it provides any benefit to the person expressing it. It is not shown exclusively based on duty or principle but also on a belief that others are worthy of time and effort. Compassion (or kindness) has been defined as “sensitivity to the distress of … others with a commitment to try and do something about it.” [i] 

What are the Benefits?

There are a number of physical and mental benefits of kindness. Most of these are measured by those who express their kindness through volunteering. Several studies have shown that the benefits of volunteering can lead to a reduced risk of early death. [ia]  When we help others, we are actually increasing our own social support, and this contributes to our own improved mental health. [ib]

Research Highlight

Scientific studies are showing that being kind produces positive effects on health, including an increase in energy and longevity, stress and pain reduction, a healthier cardiovascular system, plus inner peace and overall happiness. Altruism—a desire to help others—produces what researchers call a “helper’s high.” David R. Hamilton, PhD, is a chemist who left a career developing cardiac and cancer drugs in order to do research on the health benefits of kindness. Hamilton says being kind releases oxytocin—the same brain chemical that surges when you snuggle your baby. [ii] Oxytocin is known as a “cardio-protective” hormone because it protects the heart by temporarily lowering blood pressure. Oxytocin, also known as the “bonding”hormone, has been shown in high levels among people who are very generous toward others. 

Utilizing functional MRI scans, scientists have identified specific regions of the brain that are very active during deeply empathic and compassionate emotions. [iii] “For example, in altruistic individuals, increased activity in the posterior superior temporal cortex has been reported (when compared with less altruistic individuals). Individual acts of kindness release both endorphins and oxytocin and create new neural connections. The implications for such plasticity of the brain are that altruism and kindness become self-authenticating. Kindness can become a self-reinforcing habit requiring less and less effort to exercise.” [i, iv]

How Do I Improve It?

Use it or lose it. Here are some suggestions for exercising kindness in your daily life:

• Look for opportunities to extend kindness and then ACT! Try to do one kind act each day - toward your family, friends, coworkers, strangers at the store, or even toward animals.

• Do an act of kindness anonymously

• Be kind to yourself and accept kindness from others graciously

• Repel discouragement if a kindness is not well-received by someone

• Memorize and repeat: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Extending kindness can be as simple as the genuine smile you offer a stranger, pushing a shopping cart back to the store from the parking lot, giving your time for a loved one who needs a listening ear, having a conversation with someone at work you usually don't talk with, seeing if a sick friend or elderly neighbor needs anything from the store, sending a card to someone you've not spoken to lately, helping with household chores, and telling your loved ones how much they mean to you. Challenge yourself to improve your kindness this month by looking for specific ways you can practice this important character trait. Bonus: look for ways others have shown kindness to you or to others and write about it in your gratitude journal.

Anne Frank's friends risked their lives because of the kindness they showed to the Franks during their hiding. Kindness has the ability to leave a mark on the world that will never be forgotten. In our daily lives in the 21st century, kindness can begin with little things; and slowly but surely kindness will change how you look at people, opportunities, and the world around you. Kindness can not only improve the happiness of others, but it can transform your own life. Kindness is an act of altruistic love - a type of pure love that does not seek to harm. As a result, kindness can only improve the lives of both the giver and the receiver. Kindness is a special gift that you can use to positively transform the world - one small act at a time.

Modified from Optimize Your Brain. Learn about 12 other important character connections in this fully online peak mental performance series from Nedley Health.

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[i] Mathers N. (2016). Compassion and the science of kindness: Harvard Davis Lecture 2015. The British journal of general practice:the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 66(648), e525–e527.

[ia] Okun, M. A., August, K. J., Rook, K. S., &Newsom, J. T. (2010). Does volunteering moderate the relation between functional limitations and mortality?. Social science & medicine (1982),71(9).

[ib] Pillemer K, et al. (2010) Environmental volunteering and health outcomes over a 20-year period. Gerontologist ;50(5):594–602. 

[ii] Hamilton, DR. Why Kindness is Good for You. HayHouse, Inc.; 2010

[iii] Fan, Y., Duncan, N. W., de Greck, M., & Northoff, G. (2011). Is there a core neural network in empathy? An fMRI based quantitative meta-analysis. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 35(3),903–911.

[iv] Choden Gilbert P. (2013). Mindful compassion.London: Robinson.

About the author

By Neil Nedley, MD and Cami Gotshall, MPH

Neil Nedley, MD, is a practicing physician in internal medicine. He is the founder and medical director of the Nedley Depression and Anxiety Recovery Programs™. Dr. Nedley has presented and published numerous scientific studies in the medical literature and is well known internationally as a public speaker and teacher. He is author of Proof Positive, Depression—the Way Out, The Lost Art of Thinking, and Optimize Your Brain. Dr. Nedley and his wife Erica have four sons.

Cami Gotshall, MPH, is the Health Education Director for Nedley Health. Her passion is disseminating information on living a mentally healthy lifestyle to people around the world. Cami works closely with all Nedley Health programs to continually enhance and expand each program. She lives in Idaho with her husband Tim.