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The Secret Ingredient to Better Mental Health + How Kindness Changes Your Brain

Dr. Caroline Leaf – In this podcast (episode #268) and blog, I talk about the neuroscience of kindness, the impact kindness has on our mind, brain and body and how to use mind management to be more kind!

Kindness is a powerful weapon. Not only does it make the world a better and safer place for everyone, it also is a great way to improve intelligence and brain health! As renowned author  Henry James once said, “three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”

The brain functions best with a flexible, dynamic balance between specialized, locally segregated activity, and more generalized global integration. Too much segregation and excessive integration can lead to suboptimal functioning. What does all this science mean? Research has shown that training yourself to be more kind (to both yourself and others!) can increase your positive emotions, sense of social connectedness and pro-social behaviors, while decreasing your negative feelings, stress and social biases, all of which improve your brain integration, balance and health.

The reality is that our brains love it when we are kind! Kindness has several really great effects in the brain and body, including:

  1. Activating reward systems in the brain and body. Kindness can make us happy and give us a sense of purposefulness!
  1. “Switching on” our mirror neurons, which help improve our ability to relate to and communicate with others by helping us become more understanding and perceptive.
  1. Activating our perceptual, affective and cognitive capacities, which increases integration among different networks in the brain, leading to a better use of the brain’s abilities, as well as an increased processing efficiency. In short, being kind can help us think faster and more intelligently!
  1. Boosting serotonin and dopamine, which are neurotransmitters in the brainthat make us feel safe and at peace. They can cause the pleasure/reward centers in our brain to light up. Endorphins (the body’s natural pain killer) may also be released when we are kind!
  1. Positively impacting brain chemistry. Acts of kindness can release hormones that contribute to our mood and overall wellbeing, as well as our ability to connect with others (for example, by releasing the “love hormone” oxytocin).
  2. Reducing stress. Kindness to ourselves can prevent shame from corroding our sense of identity, reduce our stress and anxiety levels, and help boost self-esteem. Kindness can even improve feelings of confidence and optimism!
  1. Improving our overall health. Compassion has been shown to improve our overall wellbeing and how we age!
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