Sleep and Kindness: How to Create a Positive Spiral

Posted by Dr Sophie Bostock - Sleep Expert on 15th Feb 2023

Sleep and Kindness: How to Create a Positive Spiral

"Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible." — Dalai Lama 

Random Acts of Kindness Day on Friday 17th February celebrates the value of kindness and encourages people to spread kindness through kind acts, words and gestures. Kindness is a reward in itself; we have all experienced feeling good as a result of being kind to others or being on the receiving end of kindness. There is growing evidence that kindness also carries health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and stress levels. This made me curious; could random acts of kindness also improve our sleep? 

What is kindness?

A little boy is helping a little girl take off her wellies. They are in a wood.

According to the Cambridge dictionary definition, kindness is the quality of being generous, helpful, and caring about other people, or an act showing this quality. Kindness is usually associated with thoughtful actions without expecting anything in return.

Kindness, empathy and compassion 

Kindness is closely related to empathy, the ability to understand and share in the feelings of someone else, whether positive or negative. Empathy is often a prerequisite to kindness, since it is by empathising with another’s feelings that we can appreciate what would be helpful to them at any given moment. Kindness is also closely related to compassion; the feeling of being motivated to relieve another person’s suffering. 

  • Acts of kindness can be small or large, such as: 
  • Complimenting a colleague at work Donating to a food bank or charity Buying a coffee for a stranger 
  • Taking time to express gratitude to a member of your family 
  • Running an errand or walking a dog for a neighbour 
  • Volunteering your time to a charitable cause 

We can also be kind or compassionate towards ourselves by engaging in positive self-talk, or engaging in behaviours which put our own wellbeing above other priorities. A self compassionate internal dialogue will be supporting and encouraging, rather than repeating things like ‘I shouldn’t have done that’ or ‘why didn’t I do that?!’ Engaging in random acts of kindness for others can be an act of kindness towards ourselves, since good deeds make us feel good.

In order to understand the potential benefits of kindness for sleep, we’ll start by looking at 5 of the main benefits of kindness, as described in a book by Dr David Hamilton (The 5 Side Effects of Kindness, 2017), and how these are related to sleep. 

Kindness makes us happier.. which is good for sleep

Three women are clutched in an embrace as they laugh.

Acts of kindness lead to the activation of the reward centres in the brain, and the release of the feel good neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine. This has led to the term ‘helper’s high’ to describe positive emotions which arise from selfless acts (Dossey 2018). The helper’s high includes feelings of elation and exhilaration, followed by a sense of calm and serenity. 

Dopamine release makes us want to repeat a behaviour, so small acts of kindness can make us want to be more kind in the future. In fact, even thinking about being kind, or observing kindness in others can activate the same parts of the brain. The helper’s high is also due to the release of vasopressin and oxytocin. Oxytocin is also called the ‘hug hormone’, since it can be released in response to physical touch, as well as feelings of love and psychological connection. Oxytocin helps to switch off the ‘fight or flight’ stress response, dampening the release of the stress hormone, cortisol. 

We know that positive emotions are good for sleep. We need to feel calm, safe and relaxed in order to get into a deep sleep. Kindness could therefore potentially promote more restful sleep by reducing the activity of the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ nervous system, and flipping the balance towards the opposing ‘rest or digest’ parasympathetic nervous system.

Kindness is good for the heart… which is good for sleep

Another benefit of the hormone oxytocin is that it can lower blood pressure. Oxytocin stimulates the release of the chemical nitric oxide, which widens blood vessels, putting less pressure on the cardiovascular system. We know that patients with high blood pressure are at higher risk of insomnia, so it could be that blood-pressure-lowering effects of kindness also have a beneficial effect on sleep.

Oxytocin also has anti-inflammatory effects. Inflammation occurs when our immune system responds to an acute injury or infection. This can be helpful in the short term, but excess or chronic inflammation has negative side effects including depression, pain and changes in metabolism. Inflammation in the heart can contribute to atherosclerosis, the sticky deposits which cause heart disease, so oxytocin is argued to be cardioprotective.

Inflammatory messengers, called cytokines, may also disturb sleep, especially for women ( Dzierzewski 2020). Therefore oxytocin’s anti-inflammatory effects might also have benefits for sleep quality. 

Kindness slows ageing.. which is good for sleep 

As we age, sleep naturally becomes more fragmented. Older adults spend longer in the lighter phases of sleep, and are more likely to wake up between sleep cycles. Any activity that could slow biological ageing might therefore be good for sleep. 

Telomeres are the end caps on DNA strands that help prevent it from unravelling. Telomeres typically get shorter as we age, so telomere length is often measured as an indicator of a person’s biological age. 

Meditation practices which focus on cultivating feelings of kindness and compassion have been found to protect telomere length. In one study, 142 adults who had not meditated before were randomised to one of 3 groups for 6 weeks: mindfulness meditation practice, loving kindness meditation or a waitlist control group. After 12 weeks, telomere length in the loving kindness group stayed the same, whereas it decreased in the other 2 groups, suggesting that focus on kindness could buffer the effects of ageing (Nguyen 2019 ).

Kindness improves relationships... which is good for sleep

A group of happy people lock arms in a circle.

Kindness and prosocial behaviours like volunteering promote supportive and meaningful social connections, partly through increasing trust and acceptance ( Fryberg 2021). Young people report a greater desire to be social when they focus on kindness. Also, kind individuals tend to be well-liked, because the habit of being kind boosts the mood and enjoyment of everyone around them (Layous 2012).

Social support is an innate need that is critical to health and longevity, probably partly via stress-buffering effects. For example, positive social connection is associated with a 50% reduced risk of early mortality (Goh 2015).

Our ancestors relied on their community to keep them safe from prey while they slept. If our social relationships are insecure, or there has been conflict, the brain stays at a higher state of arousal, which can disrupt for sleep (Gunn 2019). Kindness might therefore promote sleep quality by improving family or partner relationships...

Kindness is contagious

Research shows that acts of kindness can be contagious. Kindness benefits both the giver, the receiver and even an observer of the act. If someone does something kind for you, you feel happier and are more inclined to help out someone else.

Social network research shows that if you feel happy, your friends are also more likely to be happy, and this feeling can even infect your friends’ friends and even your friends’ friends’ friends. This contagion is partly facilitated through mirror neurons, specialised cells in the brain that mirror expressions of emotion. All of this means that if kindness supports sleep, that kindness could be initiated by a friend of a friend, and you might still experience a partial benefit. 

How is sleep linked to acts of kindness?

Can good deeds improve your sleep?

A woman sleeps comfortably in bed clutching her pillow.

So, as we’ve seen above, we can expect that acts of kindness could benefit sleep indirectly, via improvements in mood, inflammation and stronger social connections.

There is very little research so far looking directly at the effects of random acts of kindness on sleep quality. However, research has explored the related impacts of self compassion and gratitude on sleep.

Self-compassion and sleep

A series of German studies explored the relationship between self compassion and sleep quality. 956 adults practiced self-compassionate loving-kindness meditations or written exercises to encourage self-compassion, for up to a week. In comparison to a waitlist control, self-compassion was associated with a small improvement in sleep quality ( Butz 2020).

Gratitude and sleep

People who feel gratitude on a regular basis tend to be better sleepers, potentially because they have more positive and fewer negative thoughts before switching out the light (Wood 2009). One intervention study in young women compared a daily gratitude diary with simply reporting the day’s events for two weeks; the group doing gratitude exercises had higher levels of optimism, improved wellbeing, decreased blood pressure, and better sleep quality ( Jackowska 2016). 

Could more sleep make us kinder?

The arms of a woman in bed are outstretched with the fingers coming together to form a heart.

Although I couldn’t find any research directly testing the relationship between sleep improvement and becoming kinder, there is plenty of evidence that we are less sociable, less empathetic and less generous when we are short of sleep.

Sleep loss and social withdrawal

A recent study found that compared to spending 8 hours in bed, volunteers who had their sleep restricted to 4 hours for just one night were less motivated to pursue social connections, and felt less gratitude and feelings of connectedness after a reflection task ( Palmer 2022).

Sleep loss, selfishness and lack of empathy

In a series of recent studies at by Prof Matthew Walker’s group at UC Berkeley, scientists investigated the impacts of lack of sleep on prosocial behaviour ( Ben Simon 2022).

Firstly, they used a brain scanner to show that after a single sleepless night, the areas of the brain responsible for empathy were less active. They then tested the relationship between sleep patterns and desire to help others; they found that poor sleep the night before made people less likely to engage in helpful behaviour the next day. Finally they looked at what happens to charitable giving after Daylight Savings Time is introduced in the Spring. After losing an hour of sleep, charitable donations fall by 10% relative to a typical Monday.

How can you cultivate kindness and increase your chances of better sleep?

The research above suggests that deliberately practicing kindness, gratitude or compassion can increase positive emotions and decrease stress. A key side effect of kindness is likely to be better sleep quality. In contrast, lack of sleep could make you feel less connected to others, so you might have to be proactive

Random acts of kindness

A woman hugs a man and she is holding a bouquet of red roses and a small box with a bow.

This is what 17th February is all about! The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation have created lots of ideas here, including a daily calendar.

Write down acts of kindness for your partner or family

In one study, psychologists asked 175 newlywed couples to keep a “compassionate love acts diary”. Every night for two weeks, each participant had to record loving behaviours they’d engaged in that day, for example:

●Voluntarily doing something special for their partner

●Going out of their way to “be there” for their partner

●Saying or doing something that showed they valued their partner

●Expressing a lot of tenderness and caring for their partner

●Willingly putting their partner’s goals or wishes ahead of their own

On any day where one of the couple had recorded one of these behaviours, both spouses were more satisfied with their relationship the next day - especially the one who performed the act. So in addition to being compassionate to someone you care about, why not write a diary of what you’ve done, and reflect on it?

Say thank you to someone on a daily basis

A number of studies have shown that writing gratitude letters or diaries can benefit wellbeing. A recent study tested 3 alternative gratitude practices in 916 college students for one week:

-Write a gratitude letter but do not share it

-Share gratitude 1-2-1 with someone via text message

-Share gratitude publicly on social media

-Track daily activities (non gratitude comparison)

All the gratitude practices resulted in improvements in position emotions, but volunteers assigned to text someone showed the biggest boosts in social connectedness and support ( Walsh 2022 ). So a very simple way to improve wellbeing and relationships is to text a thank you message to someone every day for a week. 

Why not start now?

Who are you grateful for, and why?

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authors profile
Dr Sophie Bostock
Sleep Expert
Sophie brings a wealth of expertise to the role having spent the last six years researching and championing the importance of sleep science in NHS and corporate settings. Sophie was responsible for improving access to the award-winning digital sleep improvement programme, Sleepio, as an NHS Innovation Accelerator Fellow. She has delivered hundreds of talks, including for TEDx and Talks@Google, and regularly features as a media sleep expert.
Read more from Dr Sophie Bostock