01. The Pilot (Kindness Takes Flight)

My adoration of this episode is only topped by my newfound adoration of Bill. Highlights were Bill’s insightful and witty questioning (“Why do you run like that? Like a penguin with its arse on fire?”), the Doctor’s dramatically majestic unveiling of the TARDIS, and the wide range of genuine emotions felt. The bathroom scene was horror movie-esque, references to past companions were touching, and by the end I was left giddy with excitement for new adventures.

Looking at kindness in this episode, the piece of that stands out to me is the Doctor’s Christmas gift to Bill. When she mentions that she doesn’t have many pictures of her mom, the Doctor goes back in time and takes pictures, then hides them in a box for Bill to find. What an incredible gift, and Bill’s reaction to the photos elicits all the feels.

Bill with mom pics
Bill reacting to pictures of her mom. (image source)

Since this is the first episode, I wanted to first reflect on what it means to be kind. I watched this episode in the theater, so I got a double feature that included the first episode of Class. As one of the main characters April is getting ready for prom, she expresses frustration at not finding a date due to being a “nice” girl. Her mom’s response is along the lines of, “You’re not nice, you’re kind. Kind is better.”

What’s the difference? The Oxford dictionary defines kind as, “Having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature.” Nice, on the other hand, is defined as, “Giving pleasure or satisfaction; pleasant or attractive.” These definitions fit my understanding. Thinking about the difference between the two, it seems to me that being nice doesn’t take a lot of work. Nice seems more reactive, specifically reacting to others with an absence of mean-ness. Nice is quite good. To be kind takes a more pro-active approach. It takes more thought and purpose to be generous and considerate than it does to be pleasant. I’ve often been called a nice person. I want to stay that way and strive to be kinder. Advice taken, April’s mom.

Kindness Takes Flight

I’ll begin my adventure into kindness research with two questions:

  1. Why be kind?

While the answer seems obvious, I was happy to find it’s also backed by science! Research has shown that doing kind acts can increase our life satisfaction, i.e. make us happier and healthier. In my initial lit search, I found one intervention that asked students to do five acts of kindness per week for six weeks. The kind acts had to benefit someone else, such as donating blood or writing a thank you note. Compared to the control group, students who did kind acts experienced an increase in well-being, but only those who did all five acts in the same day. A second set of studies asked college students in Japan to keep track of every act of kindness they performed for a week. Results showed that counting kindness significantly increased the students’ subjective happiness. While there’s much more to learn, it looks like science supports an association between kindness and happiness.

  1. How does being kind make us happier and healthier?
vagus_nerve
The vagus nerve. (image source)

The answer may lie with the vagus nerve. The vagus is the tenth (allons-y?) and longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates essential body functions and the fight-or-flight response. Although referred to in the singular, the vagus is a many-branched nerve that conveys sensory information from the organs to the brain. It’s one amazing nerve! It has a key role in regulating heart rate. Women with a spinal cord injury can experience an orgasm through the vagus, since it connects reproductive organs to the brain. It also links to nerves involved in speech, eye contact, and facial expression, which are central to bonding and communicating with our fellow humans or the occasional time lord.

Our behaviors can influence the activity of our vagus nerve. The term “vagal tone” is used to describe its strength. Greater tone indicates higher heart rate variability and lower risk of heart disease. Greater tone is also associated with social connectedness and altruistic behaviors. And guess what, we can tone our vagus by practicing kindness! This pre-post study compared the vagal tone of new meditators to non-meditators. The meditators were a group of professors at the University North Carolina who participated in six hour-long, weekly classes on loving-kindness meditation. This type of meditation involves compassionate thinking toward others and repetition of phrases such as, “May you feel safe, may you feel happy, may you feel healthy, may you live with ease.” Just typing these words makes me feel more at ease.

After six weeks, the meditators experienced greater positive emotions like joy and serenity. A subset of meditators who reported increased social connectedness also saw an increase in their vagal tone. To simplify, focusing on kind thoughts may make us happier and decrease risk of heart disease! I don’t think it’s a magic cure, of course; there are many other factors that play a role in our health like diet and exercise. But I think it’s pretty cool stuff. Want to start working out your vagus? Check out this excellent loving-kindness meditation. I’m excited to delve deeper into the biology of mindfulness meditation; it looks to be fantastic.

 

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