There are days when the needs of other people - the associated commitments, appointments, attention and un-replied-to texts - feel like just another obligation at the tipping point of an endless to-do list. On these days, responsibilities run through your head like a record on loop, distracting you from any single task as the work piles up. Your neck is tight, your shoulders knotted, and your heart feels pushed to its limits.
But picture this:
You seek serenity in the ritual of making tea. On your way to the office kitchen it occurs to you that one of your colleagues might also benefit from the soothing effects of an Earl Grey. You offer, she accepts. As you pass her that cup, the genuine look of gratitude on her face melts the tension in your upper body and slows your heart to a steady beat. You feel serene, happy and a little bit warmer inside. And you haven’t had a sip yet.
That would-be feeling, it’s a biological chemical reaction, living within your body thanks to millions of years of evolution – or so says Dr David R Hamilton. Hamilton is a scientist, author and proponent of the health benefits of altruism – that is, disinterested and selfless concern for the wellbeing and of others. He seems like the right person for the job. Even over a transoceanic phone call, it's possible to make out his positive, patient demeanour, augmented by an endearing Scottish accent. Despite having written a book on the subject, Hamilton still sounds genuinely enamoured with the science behind doing good, which, he says, has brought his life “full circle”.
As a child growing up in the tiny village of Banknock, Scotland, Hamilton often heard his mother say, “if you live from the heart, it’s good for the heart”. To him, the saying was just that. Then, after a stint working in the pharmaceutical industry in search of treatments for cardiovascular conditions like high blood pressure, he found the research to back it up: a series of studies of a completely organic heart-healing remedy, shown to reduce inflammation – a property linked to heart disease – to similar levels achieved by medications he’d spent millions of dollars researching. The treatment in question was a Buddhist practice called loving-kindness meditation, taught to develop the mental habit of kindness or altruistic love.
Loving-kindness meditation is a tradition that’s also been linked to emotional wellbeing, positive relationships, immunity and pain relief.
As far as spirituality goes, at least at a top-line level, altruism tends to be popular across the board. Taoism tells us “the way of heaven is to benefit others”, Christianity instructs us to love our neighbour and the concept of Karma is common to both Buddhism and Hinduism. But the information that interests Hamilton is of a much more primal nature. Set on course by his discovery of the loving-kindness studies, he went looking for more biological links between doing and feeling good. What he came across was a hormone called oxytocin. Penned the ‘love hormone’, oxytocin is released at those times we know we’re alive – when we hug, give birth, make love, and when we perform or receive a face-to-face act of kindness. The hormone has also been shown to protect the cardiovascular system by lowering blood pressure and inflammation, while reducing stress and creating feelings of wellbeing. It also has an antioxidant effect, says Hamilton, reducing free radicals in the bloodstream. To put it simply, what goes around comes around.
The positive link between altruism and oxytocin, says Hamilton, is nature’s way of ensuring we all stick together. “Over millions of years of evolution ... Humans have learned that safety comes in numbers. The way that evolution works is that nature selects and preserves the genes that keep us interacting with each other to make sure that we stay in groups. So therefore we’re actually biologically wired to need to connect.”
To get that oxytocin flowing, we can do something as minimal as opening a door for someone, or say, letting them ahead of us in the grocery line and bestowing a genuine smile, says Hamilton. “It might just be a one second or five second (bond), but that interaction produces oxytocin.”
But there’s a catch: it’s got to be real.
“Your body knows the difference between when you mean it and when you don’t,” Hamilton explains. “You’re offering a heartfelt act of kindness, and that is what leads to a connection."
"But unless it’s genuine like that, then there is no connection so there is no oxytocin.”
In knowing that kindness is good for us then, won’t we sabotage this whole process? “In a sense, you’ve got to forget that it’s good for you,” Hamilton tells me. “Don’t go out and be kind just to get health benefit because then you’re in a Catch-22 situation.”
Regretfully, for me at least, this is easier said than done. Following my conversation with Hamilton, I receive each hug with slightly manic enthusiasm, and each good deed – be it doing my housemates’ dishes or standing for a stranger on the bus – is marred by an almost-subconscious self congratulation, then a pang of guilt and paranoia that I’ve self-sabotaged again. Am I overthinking it? Probably. I consult Sydney and Byron-based meditation teacher Gary Gorrow - also co-founder of pro-kindness movement the Conscious Club - who tells me it’s nothing to worry about.
“We have to start wherever we are,” he says. “If you do something because intellectually you know it’s the right thing to do and there are all these wonderful positive side effects in doing it, you just go along with that mode anyway. When you do that, watch how it affects that other human being. Then it touches your heart, and … You’re really feeling it.
“There’s so much isolation in life … So many of the health and emotional problems that we face are because we get too consumed in our own petty concerns and our own headspace."
“The wonderful thing about when you’re motivated in life by something beyond self, is you feel different. It begins to change how you interpret life and how you see the world.”
“We are all altruistic by nature you know, it’s just that we’ve lost the habit. Anything that can bridge that gap, in my mind, is a special thing and it’s worth exploring.”
Hamilton agrees. “We have to trust that there will be ripple effects,” he says.
He tells me of a Harvard University study that demonstrated the tendency of kindness to snowball. “Harvard University found that it was up to three degrees of separation. What that means is that if you do kindness for someone … Chances are, they will help someone else, who will help someone else.”
Academics have argued for centuries that there is no such thing as a truly selfless act, and perhaps given the physical and mental health benefits of altruism, the naysayers are right. But is this really that important in the grand scheme of global kindness? From Hamilton, the answer is a resounding no. “While they’re busy arguing about whether there are altruistic acts, there are people out there changing the world,” he says. What matters, he says, is how you feel. Not to mention your power to make a difference in someone else’s life. “I always come back to this point, that you don’t benefit from an act of kindness biologically, mentally or emotionally unless you mean it, so when you’re actually heartfelt and honest in your act of kindness, there will always be a positive effect.
“I think nature has built in this mechanism, to say that the only way we can survive is if we actually help people and mean it.”
So what are you waiting for?