The Mother Theresa Effect
Read about how kindness can strengthen your immune system
They say that kindness is good for you. It really is. Kindness makes us feel better. It’s even been referred to as ‘Helper’s High’, the warm feeling you get when you help someone.
It’s also good for the heart, especially if being kind leads you to make a connection with the person you help. Human connection produces the hormone, oxytocin, which in addition to its well-known roles in breastfeeding and reproduction, is a powerful ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. This means it protects the cardiovascular system from some of the effects of lifestyle and stress. Some research shows that it widens arteries, lowers blood pressure, and even keeps the precursors to cardiovascular disease at bay.
Kindness also exerts its effects on the immune system. This is where Mother Theresa comes in. In a simple experiment, 132 students at Harvard University watched a 50-minute video that showed Mother Theresa carrying out acts of kindness. Saliva swaps were taken from them before they started watching the video and again immediately afterwards.
Levels of salivary immunoglobulin A (s-IgA) were then measured in the swabs. It’s an important component of the immune system, the first point of defence when a virus, bacteria or other pathogen gets into your mouth, perhaps through contaminated food.
By the time the film was finished the levels of s-IgA had risen in the students and were still high an hour later. The researchers suggested this was because the students, ‘continued to dwell on the loving relationships that characterised the film’.
In this case, feeling a connection with Mother Theresa and her loving actions led to the effect. It was through aligning with the spirit of kindness and a person showing that spirit.
And let’s put this into a greater context. It was thinking and feeling that raised immune function. The students weren’t out on the street doing kindnesses. We sometimes underestimate the effects our own minds can have on our health. We take for granted that stressful thinking can take its toll on our health, but we rarely imagine that kind thinking can have the opposite effects.
I often encourage people to spend 5 minutes of their day just thinking of people they love, perhaps even focusing on times when they felt close or when the loved one showed them kindness. And it doesn’t even have to be a loved one. You can think of any person who has shown you kindness or who you have shown kindness towards.
Try it out today!