The Reason Why Kindness Makes Us Happy

I believe a small group of people with compassion and kindness in their hearts can change the world, after all, that’s why we do the work we do. There’s a simple equation that says when you feel better, you treat other people better, and this produces a ripple effect that spreads out to everyone around you. One act of kindness is like dropping a pebble in a pond—the ripple spreads out to everyone and everything around you. The next thing you know, some lily pad in the far corner of the pond gets an uplifting shake and wiggle and it doesn’t know why.

While there is no doubt we are wired for self-preservation, contrary to this fact is the fact that we are also wired to be kind. Since the dawn of time, our human ancestors have evolved by helping each other out. We have evolved in groups and communities, which can be witnessed at the cellular level, to the cooperation between hunters and gatherers, all the way up to the formation of modern society. The way in which this aspect of evolution works is that cooperative groups and communities with the strongest bonds are more likely to survive long periods of time, so one of the ways you can create strong bonds in a group is to be kind and show compassionate behavior.

When you display kindness or compassion towards someone, the reason why you feel happy is that the bonding act produces a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is well known for its role in childbirth and breastfeeding, as well as the role it plays in the early stages of intimate and loving relationships. That’s why these types of relationships create monogamy or bonding. It is oxytocin that produces elevated emotions that cause your heart to swell with love and joy (it’s been referred to as the chemical of emotional connection or the bonding hormone). When oxytocin levels are elevated above normal, most people experience intense feelings of love, forgiveness, compassion, joy, wholeness, and empathy—not an inner state you’d probably be willing to trade for something outside of you.

As oxytocin levels go up beyond a certain level, research shows that it’s difficult to hold a grudge. In one study conducted by scientists at the University of Zurich, 49 participants played a variation of what is known as the Trust Game 12 consecutive times. In this game, an investor with a certain amount of money must decide either to keep it or to share some of it with another player called the trustee. Whatever sum the investor shares with the trustee is automatically tripled. The trustee is then faced with the decision to keep all the money, leaving the investor with nothing, or to share the tripled sum with the investor, who is obviously hoping to make a profit. Basically, the either/or decision comes down to betrayal. While a selfish act is a win for the trustee, it leaves the investor at a loss.

But what if oxytocin is introduced into the equation? In the study, the researchers gave some players a squirt of oxytocin in their nose before the game, while others received a squirt of placebo. The researchers then took MRI scans of the investors’ brains as they made their decisions regarding the amount to invest and whether or not to trust.

After the first six rounds, the investors were given feedback on their investments and were notified that their trust had been betrayed about half of the time. The participants who received the placebo before playing the game felt angry and betrayed, and so they invested much less in the closing six rounds. The participants who received a squirt of oxytocin, however, invested the same amount as they had in the first rounds, despite having been betrayed. fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans showed the key areas of the brain affected were the amygdala (associated with fear, anxiety, stress, and aggression) and the dorsal striatum (which guides future behaviors based on positive feedback). Participants who received the oxytocin had much lower activity in the amygdala, equating to less anger and fear of being betrayed again, as well as less fear of financial loss. They also had much lower activity in the dorsal striatum, meaning they no longer needed to rely on positive results to make future decisions.

As this study demonstrates, the moment oxytocin levels go up, this shuts down the survival centers in the brain’s amygdala, meaning it cools off the circuits for fear, sadness, pain, anxiety, aggression, and anger. Then the only thing we feel is a love for life (that’s because the amygdala is wired for four basic emotions: fear/anxiety, sadness/pain, anger/ aggression, and love/joy). We’ve measured the levels of oxytocin in many of our students before and after our workshops. At the conclusion of the event, some of them had elevated their levels significantly. When we interviewed those students, many of them kept saying, “I’m just so in love with my life and everyone in it. I never want this feeling to go away. I want to remember this feeling forever. This is who I really am.”

Nature selects the genes that predispose us to want to connect with each other. That’s why we live in groups, so here’s a simple idea to boost your oxytocin levels, and thus your happiness. For the next month or two, choose one day a week to practice five acts of kindness. It doesn’t have to be anything big either—it can be as simple as making some time for someone, demonstrating gratitude, holding the elevator, or helping someone carry their groceries. At the duration, see if you feel any different.

We often think of side effects as negative, but kindness actually has some good side effects. Simply put, kindness makes us happier, and who doesn’t want more happiness?

 

2017-05-27T16:28:11+00:00

17 Comments

  1. Leda Lu Muniz May 27, 2017 at 7:09 pm - Reply

    Boosting my oxytocins levels in preparation for Cancun 2 . Starting now! Thank you!

  2. Eva Gabrielle May 28, 2017 at 12:34 am - Reply

    Great article Dr. Joe!!
    Thank you!!

  3. Terri May 30, 2017 at 9:52 pm - Reply

    Wonderful article! I have noticed that in being kind to others, I receive the same kindness coming back to me which is another nice side effect.

  4. Jim May 31, 2017 at 10:51 pm - Reply

    Positive energy brings positive energy doing good brings good endorfon release is as good as it gets

  5. Allean Scott June 3, 2017 at 10:22 am - Reply

    Last evening I walked on to the elevator while the doors were about to close, one of the two gentlemen already inside, moved toward the doors from closing in on me, while the other just stood and stared, The “savior” (one who held the door) said “I wanted to save you from getting crushed”. I smiled and thanked him and and said it’s human nature to be kind, The doors opened, the “savior” held his hand out against the door as I got off, while the other guy walked off and went his way. I wondered what was the difference in both men?

    Thank you Dr. Joe, I think I got the answer – was the “savior” oxytocin engaged? I felt good and so was the “savior” as we both looked at each other and smiled and went our way. The “savior” was my co-worker and so was the other guy.

  6. Cheryl Cowie June 3, 2017 at 11:50 am - Reply

    I’m in the habit of kindness and it makes me feel connected, full and safe.

  7. Mary Knysh June 3, 2017 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    Great article on kindness, and it is so true that the ripples of kindness extend far beyond the initial act. Thanks for the inspiration! I work with drum circles and community music making and I have found that music is a profound and accessible way to express communication and kindness in a simple and heartfelt way. I see the group change immediately when they listen to one another, give each person an opportunity to share their feelings in sound and support one another’s new ideas with love – it is accessing kindness and connection through music.

  8. Kalpana June 3, 2017 at 1:14 pm - Reply

    It’s like I can read this and my oxytocin levels shoot up. So in love with life ❣️

  9. Karen June 3, 2017 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    The consequences of the financial study are a bit unclear. Does oxytocin make you stupider if it allows you to keep investing with someone who has proven that they will cheat you? While it’s valuable not to suffer from the effects of negative emotions after a betrayal, does oxytocin put you into a state where you trust people who are inherently untrustworthy?

    Did the people who were squirted with oxytocin ultimately do better on the financial side of the game, since they were still willing to invest, despite the trustee’s betrayal?

    Clearly, oxytocin is a reward in itself.

    • Josie June 4, 2017 at 9:25 am - Reply

      Great question Karen. I also wish an answer.

  10. Angie June 3, 2017 at 3:24 pm - Reply

    Even when you are cheated, you feel so good that you want to keep on giving. It is a matter of what makes your heart tick. I choose to give and to be kind. Wonderful article, thanks!!! ❤️

  11. cathy June 3, 2017 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    I love learning all this great stuff…makes me aware of thoughtful little sayings that have come my way, like this one – talking with your mother… or another loved one has the same effect as a hug and can help reduce stress levels. The sound of her voice releases oxytocin and is a great stress relief…

  12. MARIA GUADALUPE June 3, 2017 at 7:20 pm - Reply

    EXCELENTE INFORMACIÓN
    GRACIAS POR TODO Y TANTO QUE APRENDO A TRAVÉS DE TI DR JOE

  13. Jana Elston June 3, 2017 at 9:24 pm - Reply

    Beautifully written, it all makes so much sense! Thank you for the scientific interpretation. Love it!

  14. Audrey Larson June 4, 2017 at 2:38 pm - Reply

    Just themname De Joe Dispenza is a sufficient trigger for raising my oxytocin levels.

  15. Joan June 4, 2017 at 8:46 pm - Reply

    Why I am grateful for every opportunity and possibility to be kind!

  16. Hookup Apps February 22, 2018 at 11:49 pm - Reply

    Very interesting. Thank you for sharing this.

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