The power and potential of kindness – What has it to do with mental health? by Dr T. Ayodele Ajayi

The theme of the recently concluded UK Mental Health Awareness week was kindness. It was so apt, given
all that our global community has experienced in the past few months. There has been no better time to revisit kindness, with a recent Mental Health Foundation survey showing that one in ten adults in UK have felt loneliness.

Doing Good is Good

So, does doing good actually do you any good? Research says Yes! Evidence shows that kindness is good for the giver’s mental health. A 2014 study confirms that a loving and helpful life is more likely to be a happier, healthier, longer one.1   

Selfless giving has been demonstrated to cause increased activity in brain zones associated with euphoria, and also with reward and satisfaction. Not that I approve by any means, but for context, it is on the same brain areas that class A drugs exert their euphoric effects. 

There are several other mental health benefits of kindness – both to the giver and receiver. A sense of connectedness, enhanced satisfaction with daily life, optimism, reduced anxiety and stress have been identified as additional perks. What is in fact even more exciting about the benefits of kindness is its ability to snowball and encourage receivers to pay it forward in random acts of kindness to others. 

Empty Cups?

Good as the mental health benefits of kindness may be, we must remember it is difficult to pour out of an empty cup. Kindness to self is crucial in becoming a conduit of kindness to others. Overcritical voices of caregivers from childhood – be it a parent, teacher or important adult – can stand in the way of being kind to oneself. These negative experiences can shape a person’s view of themselves in relation to the others and the world. When the inflicted emotional harm becomes internalised, the resulting self-image is one that is undeserving of any good or help. By implication, the receiver becomes unkind too, only this time to themselves first! My encouragement to one with whom this account resonates is to seek help from a qualified mental health professional; preferably one with an understanding of your social background. 

A feeling of guilt or being undeserving of personal relaxation and rest time after pouring out to others is a warning sign that help is needed in self-kindness. This is an area that church minsters, health professionals and others who work in the caring professions need to be alert to. Another giveaway sign would be if one is comfortable only to give, but never to receive any form of kindness. How comfortable are you at accepting and receiving compliments? Are you your own worst critic, even in the face of well-earned raving reviews?

Another sign that kindness to self is required is when individuals will rather lavish time, talent and treasures on others than on self. It is good to consider others, but always putting others before self is not a virtue, and can quickly become a vice.

Kindness Matters

Some who wish to be kind to those with mental health distress or illness, worry they will do it wrong. Indeed, an inappropriate gesture can be detrimental. What then can you do to show kindness to one undergoing mental distress or illness in the COVID-19 pandemic?

Little acts of kindness are important to remind others that they matter, though they may be vulnerable and socially excluded. A timely phone call, bunch of flowers and anerrand to pick up prescriptions or fetch shopping can go much further than imagined.

Depression is associated with self-loathing and self-blame. At such times, helping friends or family members recognise their cherished qualities and how much they are loved can be  profound acts of kindness.

Gratitude has proven benefits for mental well-being. Supporting the distressed to review a momentary all-bleak outlook and see the silver linings on the cloud can engender hope. This can be life-saving. We know that hopelessness is a worrying sign that sometimes heralds suicide.

Depression and anxiety both result in a distortion of thinking that makes problems appear insurmountable. Another hope booster from the kindness toolkit is reminding others of the challenges they have overcome in the past. Such reminders of the triumphs under their belt can be crucial at periods of emotional crisis.

Social isolation and loneliness are common experiences that can both result from and lead to mental distress. The act of being a non-judgemental, attentive and sensitive listener can be a profound act of kindness. It does not have to cost the earth to be kind.

1. Post S., It’s Good To Be Good: 2014 Biennial Scientific Report on Health, Happiness, Longevity, and Helping Others. Int J Pers Cent Med. 2014; 2:1–53.

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