Be Kind, Stay Smart

An older woman wrestling with a young kid

When it comes to kindness, there has been a longstanding debate about its underlying motivation. On the one hand, some believe we have a natural inclination to be kind to others. From this perspective, altruism is something human being innately have as part of our being. However, others believe acts of kindness are self-motivated actions. In some way or another, each of us enjoy the benefits of kindness, which drives us toward benevolence. Obviously, proving which point of view is correct can be difficult. But that hasn’t stopped researchers from exploring these ideas in greater depth.

Over the last decade, there have been several investigations into the subject of kindness. Some have looked at how often we experience acts of kindness on a routine basis. Others have examined structural changes in the brain that might be linked to kindness. And some are identifying a number of benefits of kindness that were never appreciated previously. Questions about selfless versus selfish motivations for being kind may not be fully answered thus far. But one thing is certain. Kindness offers serious advantages that we need to recognize in our pursuit of fulfilling life.

Kindness and the Brain Anatomy

One thing that’s quite evident to most is that people vary when it comes to kindness. Some are amazingly altruistic while others are not. These variations have intrigued psychologists and scientists alike. And as a result, some have explored brain imaging studies to determine if structural differences indeed exist. The results of their work have been quite revealing. Interestingly, those who are most inclined to show acts of kindness have one specific brain area that’s larger on average. That region is called the amygdala, and it’s located deep within our brains. And according to researchers, it determines to a great extent how empathetic we might be.

(Uplift your spirits with three inspiring stories of generosity, courtesy of Project Bold Life.)

The amygdala has long been known to play a role in emotional responses and instincts. So, the fact that this area might also be responsible for empathy is logical. In essence, empathy can be defined as the ability to see (and feel) things from another’s point of view. Thus, inheriting a larger amygdala seems to provide an innate desire to perform acts of kindness. However, one of the benefits of kindness is its tendency to stimulate amygdala growth. That means that being born with a larger amygdala may make one more inclined to be kind. But similarly, being kind may also promote amygdala enlargement as well.

Psychologic Versus Evolutionary Motivations

Based on current data, it remains unclear if brain structure differences are the cause or effect of acts of kindness. At the same time, it is also unclear precisely what motivates us to be kind. Purists believe human beings are naturally altruistic without any additional motives required. But this is hard to support when many of us reap benefits of kindness along the way. For example, when we’re kind, others see us more favorable. Kindness may also pave the way for us to get something else we want or desire. Of course, removing these benefits of kindness from the equation is impossible. And this is why there continues to be debate about underlying incentives to be kind in the first place.

From an individual’s perspective, acts of kindness make us feel good about ourselves. They build self-esteem and self-worth. At the same time, kindness and generosity help foster healthy relationships. One of the best-known benefits of kindness involves the effect it has on others’ perception of us. According to evolutionists, we as human beings learned long ago that we can accomplish more through cooperation. Therefore, kindness became a learned behavior because of the perks it provided. Certainly, this could have stimulated changes to the human brain over the centuries. And those who developed a greater propensity toward kindness would have been more likely to thrive.

The Benefits of Kindness

While social and psychological benefits of kindness exist, more recent research suggests additional advantages. In a recent study, nearly 40 mothers and their toddlers were enrolled in a kindness training program. Conducted at the University of Texas in Dallas, the participants completed 5 modules that taught creative ways to practice kindness. After the completion of the tasks, parents were then questioned about changes in behaviors of the moms and children. Interestingly, both showed significant differences in key areas when compared to their baseline.

For the moms, it was recognized that the acts of kindness gave them higher levels of resilience. In other words, they were more tolerant of and reacted better to stress. For the children, the results showed a significant increase in their ability to be empathetic. Each was able to better interpret and appreciate how others felt based on others’ situations. Based on these findings, researchers believe that acts of kindness have the potential to greatly improve resilience and empathy. And since both improve cognitive and social functioning, they suspect kindness is more important than previously recognized.

Moving Up the Kindness Spectrum

According to some psychologists, there appears to be a spectrum of kindness among individuals. Some people lean toward altruism while others must invest greater effort when performing acts of kindness. Thus, there appears to be a spectrum of altruism that exists from one person to the next. However, it is also evident that performing these acts increases our capacity to be kind in the future. As we come to realize the benefits of kindness, we are encouraged to persist in our endeavors. Therefore, no matter where we might be along this spectrum, we have the potential to improve.

While there is much still to be learned, it is clear the benefits of kindness are extensive. Acts of kindness promote resilience and empathy, and they also enhance self-esteem and social standing. At the same time, it is likely an inherent part of humanity to be kind from an evolutionary perspective. All of this suggests that striving to be kind has mutual benefits for us and others. And by choosing such a path, we embrace bold self-improvement and give ourselves the chance to be our very best.

 

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