The email subject line read, “A Gift Has Been Purchased for You” followed by “This is Rachel from Stella on Central Street. A Secret Santa purchased a gift for you. Your Secret Santa asked me to email you to find out a good time to deliver it. Please let me know.” 

Someone knew I really needed support.

Both of my parents were suddenly in a senior living facility on lockdown in Minnesota. This was going to be the first year I didn’t spend Christmas with them. Already I was missing all of us smiling in the glow from their fireplace—with their stockings hanging there—backlit by the lights on their tree.

The gift was a luxurious pair of fuzzy socks. I hugged the present to my chest and wept in gratitude.

Understanding Kindness

This spurred my interest in what kindness does to the brain—of the giver and receiver.

Let’s start with a good definition, courtesy of U.K. psychiatrist and consultant Alys Cole-King: kindness is “sensitivity to the distress of … others with a commitment to try and do something about it.” My Secret Santa sure had that.

I liked what Nigel Mathers, a professor emeritus at Sheffield College (also U.K.) added:

Kindness … is not an ‘optional extra’ only to be deployed when we have sufficient time and energy, nor should it be instrumental in achieving another purpose such as meeting targets. Kindness should be central to our engagement with others …because it is central to healing.

That gave me pause. It’s true: how often had I been kind when I had the time and energy for it—rather than making it a part of who I am in the world?

 Kindness in the Giver’s Brain

Research shows that people who are altruistic have more activity in their posterior superior temporal cortex. As with smiling, acts of kindness release endorphins (pain relievers), oxytocin (feelings of trust and closeness), dopamine (feelings of being rewarded) and serotonin (feelings of wellbeing and happiness).

These chemicals create new neural pathways in the brain. That means the more often you’re kind, the less effort it is to act that way. Functional MRIs, which measure electrical activity in the brain, show that even imagining being kind can create these positive changes in your brain, as well as soothe and calm it.

Kindness in the Receiver’s Brain

Fortunately for us, compassion is contagious. The mirror neurons in our brains observe others’ actions and emotions and encourage us to imitate these.

That means I was now experiencing all of the positive emotions my Secret Santa felt. Just as those fuzzy socks would be warming my feet, so this kindness was warming my insides.

It’s true. With all the health issues my parents are now facing, my days can be filled with to-dos to support them: important, insignificant and mind-numbing.

Sometimes I struggle with overwhelm and annoyance. It’s good to know that the more I choose to look at these activities as a kindness for them, the easier they will become—and the happier my brain will be when I do them. And, somehow, their brains will feel it, too.

Another blessing is that the “size” of the kindness doesn’t matter. Our brains react the same way to letting a car merge in front of us as they do to organizing a surprise party for a loved one.

But our brains can only maintain this “high” for about three to four minutes, so it makes sense to do lots of little kindnesses throughout the day to sustain all of us.

I’m starting the practice of waking up each morning and, before getting out of bed, answering “what acts of kindness can I share today?”

Somedays the mindset—and the ideas I generate—are easier to come by than on others. But I can see how powerful this can become. And when I resist it, I think of how my Secret Santa made me feel seen and cared for. This helps me get over myself and keep trying.