New UK research has found that the warm glow we feel after helping others is real, with brain scans showing that the reward centre in the brain is activated after an act of kindness.
Carried out by psychologists at the University of Sussex and published in the journal NeuroImage, the new meta-analysis included 36 existing studies with a total of 1,150 participants who had undergone brain fMRI scans while making kind decisions.
The researchers analysed for the first time what happens in the brain when people are kind because of genuine altruism – which is when there’s nothing for them to gain from it – and when they act with strategic kindness – when they hope for something in return.
The findings showed that the reward areas of the brain are more active, meaning they use up more oxygen, when people act with strategic kindness.
However, acts of altruism in which there is no hope of personal gain also activated the reward centre. Moreover, some brain regions were actually more active during altruistic acts of kindness, suggesting that there is something unique about being kind with no hope of gaining something in return.
“We know that people can choose to be kind because they like feeling like they are a ‘good person’, but also that people can choose to be kind when they think there might be something ‘in it’ for them such as a returned favour or improved reputation,” said lead author Dr Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn.
“Some people might say that ‘why’ we give does not matter, as long as we do. However, what motivates us to be kind is both fascinating and important. If, for example, governments can understand why people might give when there’s nothing in it for them, then they can understand how to encourage people to volunteer, donate to charity or support others in their community.”
“The same issues could also apply when we think about interactions between family, friends, colleagues or strangers on a one-to-one basis,” added co-author Jo Cutler. “For example, if after a long day helping a friend move house, they hand you a fiver, you could end up feeling undervalued and less likely to help again.
“A hug and kind words however might spark a warm glow and make you feel appreciated. We found some brain regions were more active during altruistic, compared to strategic, generosity so it seems there is something special about situations where our only motivation to give to others is to feel good about being kind.” – AFP Relaxnews
Whenever you’re feeling ill, are you able to let go of your feelings of discomfort and suffering or do you find yourself stressing over them?
It’s understandable if you incline towards worrying about being ill. After all, there’s much to be done – today, it’s almost as if there’s no time to be unwell. On top of that, being under the weather isn’t something we’d choose, hence the feelings of frustration and a degree of resistance to our situation.
Last week, I wasn’t feeling at my best for a few days. Browsing online, I came across a talk by the Buddhist teacher Ajahn (Teacher) Brahm on how to love our suffering. In his talk, he invites us to be at peace with feelings of suffering that arise, even to show kindness towards states of discomfort and pain.
It all seemed wildly counterintuitive – why would I want to be kind towards anything that causes me pain? Who wouldn’t experience frustration whenever they have a headache or some other ailment that requires a period of rest?
As it turns out, when we worry or stress over situations that are less than ideal, we add even more suffering to the pain and discomfort that’s already there. Our mindset during times of unease isn’t about trying to think positively – how we think literally determines the state of our physiological health.
In an article for Psychology Today, author David Ropeik talks about some of the risks that can arise when we put ourselves in a stressed state, particularly if the stress carries on for two weeks or more. While humans have many advantages over other animals, one key disadvantage is that we often stress ourselves unnecessarily, whereas animals don’t have that problem.
As Ropeik puts it, “Zebras don’t get ulcers because when they are under attack, they either run away, or get eaten. They don’t stay stressed. We get ulcers, and suffer a lot of other serious damage, because we do.”
When we worry too much – especially when we’re ill or in some other difficulty – it can have a significant impact on our health. Our blood pressure, immune system, digestive system, mental health, reproductive system, and even our body’s ability to produce new fast-growing cells can become considerably impaired when we’re under a lot of stress.
As I watched Ajahn Brahm’s talk, it took me some time to get my head around this idea of loving my suffering. I struggled to like it, let alone feel able to show it some love. But then it struck me that, when the body is ill, the discomfort signifies the body’s attempt to heal itself, and any pain we feel acts as an indicator that we should take action. Without those mechanisms, we wouldn’t last very long.
Although it felt silly at first, when I was lying in bed I tried to put into practice this idea of loving my suffering. I began to relax into the discomfort and let it be, almost inviting it in like a welcomed guest. I also spent time mentally thanking my body for working to fix itself and encouraged it to do whatever it needed to do to become well again.
As part of the process, I carried out some breathing exercises, conscious of the fact that, when we’re stressed, we tend to take rapid, shallow breaths and even hold our breath at times without realising it. When we engage in deep breathing, our flight-or-fight response diminishes and the production of stress hormones such as cortisol reduces. While such hormones are useful in helping us to avoid actual threats or dangers, they can cause damage if they remain in our system over an extended period.
During times when suffering of any kind arises, it’s natural to resist it, but in times when there’s no getting away from it immediately, the next best thing we can do is try to avoid adding to the suffering that already exists.
If we can accept that a discomfort or illness is here to stay for a while, and if we can lessen our resistance to it, we can find that it eases up much more quickly – in other words, when we stop trying to run from it and let it be.
Furthermore, if we pay close attention, there can be some valuable lessons that arise, especially when we don’t feel at our best. These can include realising that it’s necessary to slow down from time to time, and that we should be more thankful for having a mind and body that functions well for the most part and allows us to do so many things, much of which we often take for granted.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail email@example.com.