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The science behind kindness

Why we enjoy giving, receiving and witnessing acts of kindness.

SAN ANGELO, Texas — It feels good when people are nice - it doesn't take a scientist to figure that out. However, it does take a scientist (and has taken many scientists) to figure out why kindness makes us feel good.

"When we are kind to one another, the dopamine surges in our brain, telling us that we've done something good. When you drop something, and I pick it up for you, and I see a smile on your face, I get a surge of reward," Dr. Stephen Lippi, a behavioral neuroscientist at Angelo State University, said.  

This surge of reward doesn't just happen when we give or receive acts of kindness - it even happens when we observe acts of kindness. Seeing a young boy open the door for an elderly woman, seeing a student help another student pick up fallen papers or even watching someone help a turtle cross the street can give us that surge of dopamine that makes us feel rewarded.

"When we see something painful, or we see something that somebody else is doing, we actually have neurons in our brain that actually fire similarly to what we are looking at," Dr. Lippi said.

These neurons are called mirror neurons, and their function is exactly what their name implies: they mirror what we see (these neurons are responsible for all of the times you've cringed and grabbed your ankle while watching an athlete twist theirs on television).

 "These mirror neurons are vital and kind of the neurological base for the idea of empathy; being able to understand what someone else is going through," Dr. Lippi said.

So, there you have it:

1. Dopamine (a feel-good neurotransmitter) and oxytocin (also known as the 'love hormone') are released when we give or receive acts of kindness. The release of dopamine and oxytocin make us feel rewarded. 

2. When we see other people perform acts of kindness, our mirror neurons make us feel as though we are performing the very actions that we are seeing, and thus dopamine and oxytocin are released, making us feel rewarded.

In addition, the good feelings released by giving, receiving or witnessing acts of kindness don't just benefit people in the short-term. Acts of kindness can affect someone's total health.

"By being kind to others, you're actually lowering your own cortisol (stress hormone). By lowering your own cortisol, that is going to protect you from a lot of different things: a lot of heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, which have been linked to excess stress...So that mantra of 'be nice to everyone' really is going to save your mind and your body," Dr. Lippi said.