The Science of Kindness: The need to connect is baked into our biology

The “secret sauce” of this column is how kindness creates or strengthens connections between living beings. When we truly understand that we are connected to one another, kindness flows naturally. We treat each other with respect, we tell the truth and health and happiness blossom.

To effectively apply the sauce, it is helpful to understand more about the biology and psychology of social connection. Scientists have known that satisfying the need for quality connections is absolutely critical for both mental and physical health. In adults, those who are socially isolated (lonely, without quality support group) have a risk of death 26 percent higher than those who are not. This is huge and rivals other factors such as exercise, obesity, and smoking.

Heart disease is the major reason that lonelier people die more often. That makes sense as loneliness is a potent psychological stressor and is also associated with higher blood pressure and blood sugar. People lacking quality social support understandably also have increased anxiety and depression. This problem is so large that former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, has talked about the loneliness epidemic in America and the United Kingdom has established governmental effort to address this issue.

The need for connection is also seen in children, in animals, and even in insects. Given how widespread and strong the drive for connection is, the only logical conclusion is that the need to meaningfully connect with other living beings is baked into our biology.

It makes sense — it is so important that nature has provided us with the built-in reminder system, like hunger, thirst, etc. In fact, the area of the brain that is associated with the experience of social pain or loss is the same as with physical pain, which partly explains why emotional loss is painful as well as why isolation in prison is such a powerful punishment.

That we need one another may be an evolutionary adaptation to enhance survival. Evolutionary biologists like Darwin and E.O. Wilson described that, in contrast to the concept of survival of the fittest (of an individual), members of a group must sacrifice for one another in order for the group to survive.

Examples have been described throughout nature and across species, like bats or ants or primates as well as humans. To sacrifice for or give to others honors that inborn drive to promote group survival.

Kindness and sacrifice, therefore, is the “default mode” of how (almost) everyone is born. When we give to someone else, especially for the sake of simply giving to them, we reconnect with our true nature and we send a signal to the recipient (and to ourselves) that we are connected.

That signal is more than a spiritual or emotional matter. It is an internal signal in our brains coined by Allen Luks as the “helper’s high.”

Scientists know that performing, thinking about, or simply seeing kindness activates the same parts of the brain responsible for reward (pleasure). It causes changes in brain chemistry, including the release of endorphins (natural opiates in our bodies), dopamine, and serotonin. The latter two are both neuro transmitters associated with feeling good. It is for these biological reasons that kindness can induce happiness: a natural high or elevation, the way nature intended.

How does kindness cause connection? On an obvious level, when someone gives of themselves to another person (even a smile or friendly hello), they are saying to that person “I see you—you are important and need to be recognized and/or supported.” Recognizing another person in a positive way makes the receiver feel valued, establishing a connection. And because nature has blessed the giver with internal reward mechanisms, the behavior can be reinforced as the giver’s biologic destiny has been momentarily fulfilled. Once enlightened that we are connected to one another in many ways, kindness flows readily. This becomes a self-perpetuating and virtuous cycle.

If the biology of kindness and connection is so powerful, why are we experiencing so many of these distressing events? Why are people here (and elsewhere) more anxious, becoming addicted to opiates and committing suicide if the economy is good and violence is lower than it ever has been? The answer to this is complex: One way to frame the problem is that people are more disconnected than ever before.

A major factor is that negative stories and images are very impactful — just like our system is programmed to be kind, we are also programmed to identify threats and respond to them. These unrelenting negative images and stories disconnect us from each other — fear, anger, greed, etc., all make us think that we need to protect ourselves from other people.

The second factor is that while people may appear connected through social media, these connections do not replace higher quality interpersonal relationships. In fact, as people spend more time on social media on a visual diet that disconnects us (and induces attention deficit disorder), they spend less time in interpersonal interactions.

When people don’t feel connected to others, there is less kindness, tolerance and collaboration, which perpetuates itself. In contrast to the kindness-connection loop, this is a vicious and destructive cycle that can even turn violent.

So how can we conquer this? We need to connect more meaningfully with others and show them kindness, even in simple ways.

For example, in school or at work, are there people who seem more alone or stick to themselves? Instead of ignoring them or thinking they are anti-social, why not say “hello” or smile as we walk by; eat lunch with them, or recognize the good work that they do?

Or call a friend just to say hi and see how they are? Volunteer for a worthy cause. We don’t let political divisions rob us of the opportunities to work together.

The tools to a happier, loving, caring, and more collaborative society are available to all of us once we recognize how interconnected we are. Everything flows from that.

David Fryburg of East Lyme is a physician and scientist and the co-founder of Envision Kindness, a nonprofit that promotes kindness, compassion, joy, and love through images. For information, visit envisionkindness.org.

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