Today is World Kindness Day, and we're all being encouraged to help change the world by committing one simple act of kindness. I for one fully intend to play my part - and not for entirely selfless reasons.
You see, scientific research is showing that being kind and compassionate to others is surprisingly good for you, and it's got me intrigued. Did you know, for example, that when we do something for someone else it activates the same parts of the brain that turn on when we eat a piece of chocolate, receive a reward or have sex?
Studies have also confirmed that we can deliberately 'train' in compassion - both towards ourselves and others - with a resulting boost to our happiness, our health, our working life and our relationships with others.
In 2002, Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, conducted fMRI and EEG brain scans on Tibetan Buddhist monks who had dedicated between 10,000 and 50,000 hours to meditation and compassion practices. The results were startling, prompting Dr. Davidson and others to investigate what effects this kind of contemplative training could have on people with little or no previous experience. It seems just half an hour a day can have a measurable effect on parts of the brain connected with happiness and well-being.
Piece together all the different studies and you get an impressive array of potential health benefits: less stress and anxiety, a strengthened immune system, lower levels of harmful stress hormones, and increased vagal function, which has been associated with efficient regulation of glucose and inflammation, as well as lower incidence of heart disease and diabetes.
A University of California San Francisco study published in April showed that teachers who took part in an eight week intensive meditation course involving compassion training were less stressed, anxious and depressed. They were also more compassionate and empathetic to others. In September, scientists at Emory University in Atlanta published research indicating that compassion training improves our ability to read people's facial expressions, a key factor in successful relationships. Their subjects also showed significant increases in brain activity in areas important for empathy.
I recently interviewed Paul Gilbert, director of the Mental Health Research Unit at Derbyshire Mental Health Trust, who has been of pioneer of compassion training programmes and research in the UK. Prof. Gilbert developed Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), which combines elements of cognitive therapy with exercises specifically designed to develop self-compassion and compassion for others. He has found that this can reduce shame, self-criticism, depression, anxiety and stress.
"There are lots of different pieces of research showing that compassion training, focusing on feelings of kindness and the wish for other people to be free from suffering, really does change your mind," Prof. Gilbert told me. "It changes your brain, it changes your body, it changes your feelings, because you are stimulating a particular system in your brain.
"If you focus on hating, anger and fear, then you focus on those systems in the brain and you will feel worse. It's kind of logical that if you focus on the systems and stimulate brain areas associated with calmness, soothing, peacefulness and kindness, and niceness to yourself, you are going to feel a lot better."
Prof. Gilbert, who spoke yesterday at a conference to discuss compassionate practice in healthcare, believes compassion has wider implications. Politicians, he insists, urgently need to focus on creating a society that gives greater importance to altruism and compassion, with less emphasis on profit and the economy. Next week he will join a number of experts in the study and application of compassion to discuss these issues at a conference for the public sector in London entitled Empathy and Compassion in Society.
When I suggested to Prof. Gilbert that compassion has a bit of an image problem, he agreed. For some, it's just too touchy-feely. Others find the religious associations off-putting. He told me that one of his colleagues in the United States gets an even balance of men and women at the mindfulness classes that he teaches. But as soon as he puts the word compassion in the workshop title, the men are suddenly nowhere to be seen.
All this has got me wondering whether we might be missing a trick when it comes to kindness and compassion. After all, the science also tells us that kindness is contagious, with one act of generosity creating a ripple effect that spreads to three other people, and so on. So I'm going to put aside my cynicism and embrace World Kindness Day - and if you feel like joining me, here are 273 ideas.
The Empathy and Compassion in Society conference is in London at Friends House on Friday 23 November from 1.30pm.