Why We’re Built For Kindness

Meet seasoned British traveller Hilary, tackling life with an enthusiasm that seems to border on recklessness:  

‘‘No one hitchhikes any more, do they?” I often hear people saying this and am proud to reply that I’ve hitchhiked every decade of my life, except the first. And I don’t intend to stop just because I’m now in my 80s.

So there I was, standing beside the road in southern Bavaria last year at the age of 82, with a sheepish smile on my face and thumb extended, while car after car swept past looking at me curiously. I could have taken the bus; indeed, that was the plan when I firmly told my companions that a seven-mile walk was enough for me, and they could complete the final five miles to Egloffstein, where we were staying, on their own.”

No everyday octogenarian globetrotter? Absolutely! She’s been doing this for decades, and even found a way to turn it into her living. By founding a guidebook company that carries her surname, Hilary Bradt made a name for herself and her small team by covering the small, dramatically out-of-the-way destinations that other travel publishers eschewed – presumably because they figured too few people visited those place to translate into book sales – until they’d cornered the market. 

(Today, nearly two-thirds of Bradt’s guidebooks have no direct competition in English from any other travel publisher.) 

But throughout her accidental career has been Hilary’s steadfast belief in the reliability of the essential goodness of people she’s met enroute. As she recently wrote in The Guardian:

“[Friend] Janice and I continued hitching through our 60s and into our 70s, although she did sometimes rebel and mention the T-word. No, we were not going to take a taxi when this would be more complicated than sticking our thumb out.

The last time was in France, trying to get to the prehistoric cave paintings at Les Eyzies, when there were no buses. Janice made a cardboard sign, in French, and a car soon stopped. It smelt deliciously of fresh bread. The female driver was on her way to her mother’s to deliver groceries. Did we mind waiting while she visited Mum? Of course not. She left the key in the ignition and her handbag on the seat and was gone for some time.

This exemplifies the mutual trust which is so integral to hitchhiking, and why I might still find myself standing by a road with my thumb out relying, again, on the kindness of strangers.”

But – okay, it’s one thing to hear this extremely common refrain from highly experienced travellers, that wherever you go in the world, people are generally good – yet it’s a whole other thing to risk your personal safety in a situation like that. Easily said, much harder (and riskier) done. So it’s always your call, based on your own instincts and good judgment, and no gleefully feel-good aphorism should ever change that.  

But what about the other side of kindness? Not to sound too self-interested about it, but – what exactly do we get for being kind to the strangers we meet as we travel? 

Sure, friendliness is a virtue, but since we’re generally taught to respect our own needs at least as much as those of others, why would human beings have developed this alleged tendency towards kindness – the very kind that Hilary Brandt relies upon to this day?

Science now has some fascinating and surprising things to say about this! For example, do you know someone elderly who is remarkably spry for their age? That could be because they’re unusually kind. 

I know, that might sound risible – the kind of vapid news headline that makes you want to throw your phone in the sea. And hey – what about all those incredibly healthy-looking but super-awful people in the world? 

But no, I promise this is all about real science (and it also logically supports the argument that the nastiest and most selfish folk are biologically determined to have deeply miserable lives, which is another reason to keep reading).

Firstly, you may have heard the often-cited fact that people who volunteer for things generally live longer – a comparable boost to eating a diet with the right amount of vegetables and fruit every day. This is in fact true! But wait – since correlation doesn’t mean causation, it could just be that healthier people tend to volunteer more?

Here’s something that scientists probably wish we bore in mind more often: things like this occur to them as well…

“Even when scientists remove the effects of pre-existing health, the impacts of volunteering on wellbeing still remain strong. What’s more, several randomised lab experiments shed light on the biological mechanisms through which helping others can boost our health.

In one such experiment, high school students in Canada were either assigned to tutor elementary school children for two months, or put on a waitlist. Four months later, after the tutoring was well over, the differences between the two groups of teenagers were clearly visible in their blood

Compared to those on the waitlist, high-schoolers who were actively tutoring the younger children had lower levels of cholesterol, as well as lower inflammatory markers such as interleukin 6 in their blood – which apart of being a powerful predictor of cardiovascular health, also plays an important role in viral infections.” 

– “Why being kind to others is good for your health,” Marta Zaraska, BBC Future

It also turns out that perpetuating a random act of kindness on a stranger lowers the activity of certain leukocyte genes. Leukocytes are the white blood cells released by our immune system to fight infections – and an unfocused overabundance of them is associated with lingering or even chronic inflammation.

Compassion also releases oxytocin, a natural hormone which helps lower blood pressure and is therefore regarded as an important protector of the heart.

Then there’s how it makes you feel to be kind: that odd warm glow in your stomach that gives you a mild high for hours afterwards. This is enough of a universally experienced reaction to be the subject of a number of studies, none of them yet conclusive – but one at the University of Sussex found that the brain scans of over a thousand people seemed to show differences between otherwise identical acts of strategic kindness (“I’m doing this for you in the hope you’ll give me something in return”) and altruistic kindness (“I’m expecting nothing but the satisfaction of doing the right thing”). In the latter case, different parts of the brain showed activity – a possible sign of the “warm glow” in effect?

While it seems there is a hereditary basis for heightened empathy, it can also be learned, through the application of compassionate acts – or, in other words, by regularly being kind to other people.

The philosophical implications of this are quietly staggering. When you’re travelling and you meet someone who goes out of their way to do you a favour, it’s only natural to feel a little abashed. They’re going to all that trouble on your behalf and getting nothing in return! But in fact this is completely untrue: they’re getting a small but highly significant positive boost to their wellbeing and their health. If you accept their kindness and generosity, you may even be helping them live a longer life. Doesn’t that just change everything in this equation? 

(And of course it’s a reminder of the selfish value of doing it in return. You’re not just being a morally good human being, you’re biologically rewarding yourself as well!)

So maybe Hilary Brandt has the right idea after all: if you give other people the opportunity to be kind towards you, and if you reflect that kindness back whenever you can, everyone wins. Wouldn’t that make for a whole world of people well worth meeting?

Scroll to Top