As we evolve as a species, there is a trend toward growing kindness. Although the media would have us believe that violence is more prevalent than ever, the facts show the reverse. Steven Pinker in the New York Times Bestseller, The Better Angels of our Nature, explains that in fact violence has declined over the long stretches of history and we are now living in the most peaceful time in human history. He articulately describes his theory that multiple factors are responsible for these changes:
- Leviathan: The rise of the modern nation-state and judiciary with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.
- Commerce: The rise of technological progress for exchange of good and services over longer distances and with larger groups of trading partners.
- Feminization: Increasing respect for the interests and value of women.
- Cosmopolitanism: The rise of forces such as literacy, mobility and mass media.
- The Escalator of Reason: An intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs.
A combination of these forces has allowed “our better angels” to prevail and violence to decline. And what are these “better angels”? According to Pinker, they are empathy, self-control, a “moral sense” and reason. Abraham Lincoln famously used these words in the close of his first inaugural address, when he said the Union will be healed “when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Bekindr was developed to help all of us foster these better angels.
As a psychiatrist, I see the same phenomenon occurring and think of them in a slightly different way. Violence is primitive. Violence was necessary to sustain life for our hunter gather ancestors. Our flight or fight response is deeply ingrained in our brain. We can’t survive without it. It is fast, automatic and essential. But in our modern and very complex world, it often gets triggered when not needed. When arguing with a loved one, sometimes we feel as if we are threatened, and our fight or flight response kicks in. Our blood pressure rises, our heart rate picks up, and we are ready for battle. Not too helpful, when your wife simply asked you if you picked up dinner or why you were late again. We all know that feeling. Examples abound about how our ancient circuitry gets activated over relatively trivial offenses, such as road rage.
Kindness is equally essential for survival. No man is an island. In fact, as a species we have remarkably dependent young and they rely on our kindness for many, many years. Kindness bind us together and helps us achieve what no human alone could do. Our ancient relatives lived in groups of around 150 people, and now we can interact with more than ever imagined in our flat, globalized, and profoundly interconnected world.
Kindness creates connection. Connection causes the release of oxytocin, also known as the love or cuddle hormone, or as some like to say, nature’s marijuana. Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that is released when we feel close to another person. Nursing, sex, touching, and even laughing together causes it to release.
In fact, I think every pet owes its life to the owners’ oxytocin receptors. Animals are powerful stimulators of oxytocin as they touch, lick, nuzzle, and make us feel loved, and consequently we are very bonded to them. Young animals that need care are even better oxytocin stimulators. Just look at the myriad of sites on instagram that show us puppies and kittens. Now you know why they are so popular. Ever feeling down, just dive onto one of these sites and feel the difference. Oxytocin has well documented health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and heart rate, decreasing inflammation, and speeding wound healing.
Acts of kindness can also come from our primitive brain when we leap into action to save someone before even thinking. But most acts of kindness require sustained mental effort. Over the last ten years, we have been flooded with books on happiness and mindfulness. We are learning how to create a better life and take responsibility for how we feel. Happiness, like sadness or lust or anger, is just a fleeting emotion. So is kindness. Just as you can train your brain to focus on happiness, so you can train your brain to focus on kindness. Brain science has advanced radically, and people are taking control of their lives as never before.
With kindness, wellness is within reach. When one acts well, one feels well, and then the need for violence is almost entirely eliminated.