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Dr David Hamilton: Why Kindness is Good For You

This was recommended by a Twitter friend, and I was initially a little sceptical. Hamilton's website, together with his identifying as a "motivational speaker" screamed pseudo-science, self-aggrandisement and general fail.

However, the Twitter friend in question has always struck me as sensible, and the central thesis of Hamilton's book - that being kind and compassionate is actively good for the health - is one that I've more or less believed for a while, and is certainly an idea that I'd like to see gain currency. Also, squirrelled away on his website is the information that his PhD is in organic chemistry, that he used to work for the pharmaceutical industry, has taught chemistry and ecology at degree level, and runs a charity that appears to do genuinely good stuff. All of which give him rather more credibility in my eyes for this sort of thing. Apparently what triggered his current career was noting how powerful the placebo effect really is, and wanting to find ways of deliberately using this, rather than pretending it's something else. Which is something I've been hoping someone would do for a while.

So, I got a second hand copy from AbeBooks, and had a read.

And it's lovely. Not unflawed (I'll get to that later) but lovely.

Hamilton's thesis is that kindness, compassion, respect, forgiveness and gratitude are things that humans are naturally good at and have probably evolved to be good at. Negative behaviours and qualities are also part of our nature, of course, but in our present culture(s) they dominate our thinking far more than they need to, or should. Our bodies are healthiest when we (genuinely) act on our positive and more compassionate qualities, and nurture them within ourselves. And as these things involve neural connections and so forth, kindness and similar qualities are things that we do need to actively practise in order to become better at them. And if we *do* practise them, and act in ways that are kind, compassionate, respectful, forgiving and grateful, we'll make other people happier and healthier, and also make ourselves happier and healthier, both mentally and physically.

This makes total sense to me, and resonates very much with my religious views - that love is what we are supposed to be doing, and it's mostly learned behaviours of mistrust and selfishness that get in the way of that. It also makes me somewhat gleeful because it shows up the whole "but altruism isn't really altruistic!!111!!" argument as both redundant and rather foolish. I've been wanting something to do that ever since I was an undergraduate. ;-) The point, Hamilton says, is to do the kind things for others and for yourself. There doesn't need to be a contradiction there. We can all up the amount of joy and love and goodness in the world. Do things for others that are definitely what they need and want, but feel completely free to enjoy the pain-relieving, stress-relieving and generally fabby feelings you get when you do them. It's all fine, and good, and joyful. :-)

Hamilton backs his argument up with a lot of biochemistry and other biology, and also some evolutionary stuff. I can't comment on the science in any detail, but it certainly seemed to me that he has some sensible points to make, and he references actual peer-reviewed scientific studies and academic journals which is quite encouraging. The reminder that we are building neural connections in our brains *all the time* is a welcome one. Also, his passages combining evolution and psychology appeared to suggest that he actually knows something about both subjects, which is a rare treat indeed. ;-)

In addition to the science, there are suggested activities, including a straightforward and excellent lovingkindness meditation/practise which I've been trying to do some of every day. There are some fun anecdotes (some of which involve MRI scanners and Tibetan Buddhist monks :-)). And each chapter ends with one or two true "stories of kindness", which appear to be mostly there to make the reader go "aww" and feel all good inside. They work. :-)

Now to the downsides of the book. Well, firstly, Hamilton's writing style is occasionally rather irritating. He has a habit of stating each important fact three times, each in a different way. I have a feeling that this is something that's quite fashionable among a certain sub-division of self-help authors/speakers, and I even recall something to the effect that people get taught to do this as a means of communicating. I wish they didn't, as it's really quite annoying!

The main problem, though, is that Hamilton's writing is thoroughly geared towards neurotypical readers, and there is more than a little ableism fail towards autistic people displayed in the book. I would therefore recommend it only cautiously towards friends with Asperger's or other forms of autism. This is a pain, because it's otherwise quite a fabulous book, he mostly escapes being ableist towards any other group of people, and I really don't think it would have been that hard for him to have spoken to some willing autistic people about finding ways to make the book work for them too. But he does appear to suggest that all autism is a Problem that must be Cured. I'm neurotypical myself, but that does strike me as a very problematic indeed. Bah.

So, yes. 3 1/2 out of 5 for Why Kindness is Good For You. I'm very fond of it myself, and glad indeed that it was recommended to me. But too flawed to get a higher mark, I think.


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Journeys in Kindness/Journeys in Kind

September 2010

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