What does channel kindness mean to you? There’s a few ways you can think of it, I suppose. You can be a channel for kindness. That is, whatever you say, say it with kindness and whatever you do, do it with kindness. In other words, let kindness be like a gentle wind that helps nudge your course as you go through life.
That’s mostly how I think of it.
Channelling kindness is good for mental health. Lots of research shows that it boosts happiness and can even protect against depression. It can also neutralise fear. Kindness is the opposite of stress in terms of how it feels and the physiological effects of it. But it can be an antidote to fear. Have you ever noticed that in the moment of an experience of love or deep compassion, that you don’t feel fear? It’s why parents can sometimes do extraordinary acts to protect their children, moving past things and people that would ordinarily scare them. Kindness has similar effects.
There’s a biological basis for it. Kindness creates the kindness hormone, which also happens to be the love hormone, oxytocin. It’s produced because of how kindness feels. One of the things the kindness hormone does is that it turns down activity in the fear centres of the brain, like the way you can reduce the light by turning down a dimmer switch. With the feelings that accompany the experience of kindness, the kindness hormone flows into fear centres of the brain and simply reduces activity there.
Channelling kindness also means to be kind to yourself as well, channelling it for the sake of your own wellbeing. Not instead of others, of course, but as well as others. Most of us miss the ‘as well as’ part. We give so freely of ourselves at times, but often forget that we need topping up too. Like a phone that’s run out of battery and can no longer function, we’re a bit like that. Too much doing and giving can leave us low in energy, which can degrade our mental health and affect the quality of our day to day life.
And so even though being kind to others is good for our mental health, too much can be detrimental. This can be seen from a study that examined the quantity of time people spent volunteering. At low levels, once or twice a week for a short time, volunteering had a positive effect on mental health, but once a person got to around the 16-20 hours a week (approximately – it varies from person to person so this was an average) of giving their time freely, there were no longer health gains, but overall the effect became negative. Why was this?
There’s a few reasons. One is that beyond this threshold, it didn’t feel so much as giving their time to help others, but began to feel like a job and something that was expected of them. I have experience of this. Some friends and I founded a charity about 20 years ago. What began as a heartfelt mission to help others, eventually became stressful as the number of hours we volunteered exceeded normal full-time hours. With those demands of time, I personally sometimes lost the sense of purpose that initially fuelled me as the needs of the job became all consuming.
Another reason is that many had other full time jobs that earned them their wage, so they were trying to squeeze time to volunteer into an already busy schedule, such that volunteering a large number of hours became physically and mentally tiring.
Another reason, one that is relevant to those who have to care for people due to health situations, is that it can be stressful – the concern for your loved one and fear for their situation, plus the emotional demands of caring while also maintaining a household.
The moral of the story is that always be kind when and where you can, but if you notice that it is taking a toll on you, then step back and do what you need to do to recharge your physical and emotional batteries. Plug yourself into a charger, so to speak. Take some time in nature, if you can. The human nervous system is adapted to green spaces so trees, grass, and flowers, have a calming effect. Or treat yourself to something nice or by doing something you enjoy or that matters to you.
So channel kindness towards others and also channel it towards yourself.
Channel Kindness is also the title of a new book by Lady Gaga and young reporters from the digital arm of her charity, Born This Way Foundation, a charity all about helping young people be kind, create more kindness, and that supports their mental health. The digital arm is called, ‘Channel Kindness’, as in ‘Channel 1’ or ‘Channel 2’, but also as a suggestion that we try to channel kindness in our lives.
I told Lady Gaga’s team I’d mention the book. It’s packed with inspiring stories of kindness and community from young people. It’s a really heartwarming and inspiring read. I’ve done some work with Born This Way Foundation. I met with Cynthia, Lady Gaga’s Mum, who co-founded Born This Way Foundation with her daughter, and we went with some of the team to a high school in Long Island that they were involved with. The kids had bought Christmas presents for the children of women staying in a local temporary homeless shelter. Over the following week, they would discuss the impact of their kindness, write about it, and learn how and why kindness is important in the world and the difference it can make in the lives of others.
I said I’d tell people about the book because I truly love the work they are doing with young people around kindness and mental health.
For me, kindness is the ingredient we need to use more in the world right now. It’s why I write and speak about it so much. Just like you might sprinkle some herbs over a meal, channel kindness and sprinkle some of it everywhere you go.
Dr David Hamilton