Kindness could be the answer to improving our mental health and wellbeing, writes Michelle Holder
At a time when we are isolated from our friends and family, when our anxiety and stress levels are raised due to the threat of the coronavirus, it is no wonder that our wellbeing is suffering. As social beings, a key element to positive wellbeing is our relationships with each other.
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to run a session on wellbeing at the GDST Student Council meeting. This was the first time I was to meet the group, represented by senior students from each school in the GDST. I wanted to connect with everyone, and for everyone to be able to connect with themselves and those around them. To do this online, with individuals I had never met before, was a challenge.
It was kindness that allowed us to do this.
Kindness is free. It does not have to cost a thing. And the best part about kindness is that both the person giving and receiving kindness benefits.
Former scientist, David Hamilton PhD, author of the Five Side Effects of Kindness explains that kindness makes us happier, it is good for the heart, it slows ageing, it improves our relationships and it is contagious. Scientific studies have shown that when we carry out acts of kindness, the “love” hormone oxytocin is released, which can reduce stress and inflammation in immune cells. There is also evidence that being kind produces serotonin and endorphins which help to heal your wounds, calm you down, and even help to combat depression and anxiety. The Mental Health Foundation has chosen kindness as the theme for Mental Health Awareness week, 18th-24th May 2020, focusing on the power and potential of kindness as a way to protect our mental health.
Carrying out random acts of kindness is a great way to do this. It does not have to be anything big and sometimes even the smallest act of kindness can have a huge impact. From offering to pick up shopping for your neighbour or calling a friend that you haven’t spoken to for a while, to just giving a smile to someone. However, kindness does not just have to be the act of doing something. It can be as much as thinking of someone.
At the GDST Student Council meeting, I decided to share one of my favourite mediations, a loving kindness meditation where we dedicate time to thinking of others. Most importantly, the meditation starts with kindness to ourselves. Learning to love ourselves can often be harder than being compassionate to others. The loving kindness meditation also offers the opportunity to forgive and offer kindness not only to those we love but to those with whom we struggle. We can freely be kind to individuals we care about and even people who we may pass by on the street, but extending kindness to those that stir up negative feelings in us can bring us peace.
I was overwhelmed by the kindness and dedication I felt from the Student Council to their peers. I am still struck by Darcy Amiss’ impassioned speech about all the initiatives she would like to set up in Norwich High School for Girls to improve the wellbeing of her fellow students on top of the great things they are already doing. And, as they say, kindness is contagious. More and more representatives talked passionately about the wellbeing programmes and events in their schools and we began to share some wonderful ideas. From this conversation emerged the idea to set up a Trust-wide Student Wellbeing group. In that moment I felt connected to everyone, I felt happy.
Up until yesterday, I have been receiving responses from the Student Council team about how much they got from the loving kindness meditation, and I have been very touched by their gratitude. One student has even been inspired to join a meditation class that is being run virtually at Wimbledon High School. Emma Seppala PhD, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and author of The Happiness Track, lists 18 science-based reasons for trying a loving kindness meditation. She not only echoes the healing effects and positive impact it has on our stress-response and mental health, but goes on to say that a course of the loving kindness meditation can also curb self-criticism, activate empathy and emotional processing in the brain and even increase grey matter volume.
I hope you can join me in some way in honouring this year’s theme of kindness for Mental Health Awareness Week by offering kindness not only to others but to yourself. I would also like to share a recorded version of the loving kindness meditation that we did and welcome you all to have a go. You never know, you just might find you start looking younger.
Special thanks to some kind individuals for allowing me to use their work in the loving kindness mediation:
Adapted script from Alisha Smith. I highly recommend Alisha’s guided meditations her YouTube channel, Alisha Yoga.
Music by Piano Peace. Piano Peace have a wonderful selection of music available on Spotify/YouTube to help you relax, meditate or study at www.pianopeacemusic.com
Michelle Holder is the Pastoral Trust Consultant Teacher at the Girls’ Day School Trust and teaches Classics at Northwood College for Girls. She is a Registered MBACP Counsellor.