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The power of kindness

"Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind." —Henry James

The great German writer, Goethe, described kindness as ‘the golden chain by which society is bound’. I think this is particularly important to bear in mind during these times. More than ever we need to put ourselves in the place of others and, despite the pressures we all feel under, think generously of them. You would think it was difficult to argue against kindness, but I find it often receives a bad rap in some quarters.

When we are young, so many of the stories we are read, the TV programmes we watch and the films we go to see have a central message about the value of kindness. My favourite children’s book is ‘The Smartest Giant in Town’, by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler. (Spoiler alert!) It tells the story of a scruffy giant who buys a new, smart outfit then sets off for home singing a song about being ‘The smartest giant in town.’ He then spends his journey home donating his new items of clothing to creatures who need them more. He ends up in his vest, with his trousers around his knees, as he’s given away his belt. When he gets home, having returned to the bin to put on his old, ragged, clothes, he is met by all of the creatures he has helped out that day. They declare him ‘The kindest giant in town.’ It’s ridiculous, but I can’t read this book without being moved. Almost all of us wean our children on such messages about kindness and community.

But at some point, many of us stop. I have heard many parents talking about the need for children to learn that the world is a tough, unforgiving place. As time goes on, it seems many people are introduced to a harsher, less trusting view of our surroundings, and ourselves. Kindness and compassion are sometimes portrayed as weakness and naivety. Those who rely on them are just ‘in denial’ about the reality of a world that’s ‘red in tooth and claw’. Apparently, ‘the world doesn’t work like that’.

This all creates a scary world and it can lead to us hardening our attitudes and keeping our guard up as a defence. We can become so defended that we can’t let people in and we miss out on the warmth that comes from giving and receiving kindness. I suspect we have all met people who have come to look like their world-view. People who have been hardened by experience.

Yet, it doesn’t take much reflection to find examples which contradict this. Nelson Mandela championed compassion and understanding with his ‘Truth and Reconcilliation’ approach to addressing the fallout from apartheid. Recently, New Zealand’s response to the current pandemic, led by Jacinda Ardern, has shown that empathy and kindness are not incompatible with effectiveness. I suspect few would claim that Mandela, in particular, was blissfully unaware of ‘The evil that men do.’


Altruistic versus strategic kindness

Kindness has experienced something of a renaissance in the first couple of decades of this century and it has been the subject of many psychological studies. There is an on-going academic discussion about the extent to which it is ever entirely for the benefit of others. Some commentators, such as Professor Richard Dawkins, have suggested that kindness has developed as biological glue to create social bonds and enable humans to pass on their genes safely to the next generation. Even when we don’t have a conscious agenda, our genes do! I think over-analysing kindness seems rather like crushing a butterfly in order to find out what made it beautiful. If being kind creates and strengthens social bonds and is therefore an evolutionary advantage, that sounds like wonderful news to me, but it shouldn’t take away from the experience of kindness.

Nevertheless, it is certainly possible to be kind in order to achieve a personal goal. Notably, Harvard Business School has recently published an article on the ‘value’ of kind leadership. They recommend everyday work tips on how to be kinder and increase effectiveness. Is this really kind, or manipulative, and does it matter?

Dr James Kirby of the University of Queensland and the ‘Compassion Initiative’ (I know, it really does exist … and why not?) has spent much of his career studying kindness. He describes a ‘feel-good rush’ or ‘warm glow’ that we experience after we've been kind to another person. This is, he explains probably due to the release of endorphins in our brain. Endorphins make us feel good. It’s what love feels like… and chocolate. As I understand it, we can’t use a brain scan to see endorphins, but we can see their effects, and brain scans have been used to show the positive effects of kindness.

Arguably, kindness is in the eye of the beholder. It’s kind if it feels kind, whatever the reason behind the act. So, you could act in a kindly way for strategic reasons (meaning there is something to be personally gained), rather than altruistic reasons (with no obvious benefit to yourself.) The University of Sussex carried out a study a couple of years ago into the effect of acts of kindness on the brain scans of individuals. They found out that carrying out acts of kindness was beneficial regardless of whether they are strategically motivated or altruistic - but the "warm glow" effect was at its peak with altruistic acts of kindness.

Being kind to others is good for you

According to peer-reviewed academic papers, there are indications of health benefits to being kind, for instance:

It appears to reduce anxiety (Socially anxious participants who engaged in acts of kindness for four weeks for a study showed a decrease in social avoidance.)

It may reduce blood pressure (Participants in one study were randomly asked to spend money on themselves or on other people. They all had high blood pressure at the start of the study. Those chosen to spend money on others experienced a decrease in blood pressure, comparable with taking medication or improving exercise.)

It makes sense, then, that we would develop as a species with an instinct towards empathy and altruism. There is a wealth of scientific evidence showing that these features of humanity are innate, and emerge spontaneously in early childhood. But like all things that are innate, they can be nurtured or suppressed as we learn from our families and surroundings. One example of this is greed. Greed is almost certainly instinctual, ensuring that we survive when resources are sparse, but we can be conditioned to celebrate greed and acquisitiveness or to see it as distasteful and socially unacceptable. What is born in us is then moulded by our experiences. We are all a result of nature and nurture.

Beyond health benefits and social cohesion, In the current political, economic, and environmental climate, having something like kindness to believe in seems vital for keeping us positive and hopeful. But you don’t need me to tell you that.

Finally, remember to save a little for yourself

Many of the people I meet, in a personal or professional capacity, find it much easier to be kind to others than to themselves. As I’ve discussed, being kind to others has its obvious benefits, but so does being kind to yourself.

"If I am being kind towards myself, the same regions light up (on brain scans) as if I'm receiving kindness from another person or giving kindness to another person," says James Kirby.

We probably all do a bit of ‘self-talk’, but it is worth asking yourself what tone of voice you use! You can talk to yourself in a ‘pull yourself together, for god’s sake!’ way, or you can be friendlier and kinder to yourself. Dr Kirby has found that this makes a big difference to our brain activity.

"If you speak to yourself in a friendly way, much like a friend would in terms of trying to be kind and helpful, the same areas of the brain light up."

In other words, if you want your ‘self-talk’ to make any difference, it’s best to approach it in the way we would talk to someone we really care about.

I work with lots of people who think they are unlovable, they are unreliable, they constantly let people down. They are very often great at being kind to others but the very idea or thought of being kind to themselves is self-indulgent and even threatening… after all, if you’ve spent 20, 30 or more years with a voice in your head, even a negative voice, it’s familiarity brings certainty.

There are many reasons why the voice developed that way, and some of them are easier to stomach than others. ‘That’s what the bullies/teachers said to me’ is easier than ‘that's the way Dad spoke to me'. Whatever the origin, that inner tone can impact your emotional state and the workings of your body similarly to if it was coming from someone else."

I’d love to say this is all easily fixed or challenged. It isn’t. People spend a lot of time seeing a Counsellor to address these things and even then there is often an incredible resistance to seeing ourselves as the caring, decent, important person our friends and colleagues see.

This may sound like self-care (which makes many Brits come out in a rash!), but I’d recommend trying to start the day on a positive. Try to stop that feeling of ‘Oh, I’ve got so much to do today’ or even ‘I’ve got so little to do today, I feel useless’ by thinking of something positive you could do, a simple way you could make others (or yourself) feel better about life. If you start with negative thoughts, it will kick off the morning with a stress response in your body, when stress levels are already high. If you start the day by thinking about what you could do if you were at your kindest, you could spark different parts of your brain and challenge the negativity that so many of us feel at the moment.

I know it sounds ‘homespun’ and for some it will even be a little ‘icky’, but there is genuine research behind it. What have you got to lose?


Some links:

Harvard business school

https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/good-leadership-is-an-act-of-kindness

University of Sussex

http://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/46037

An article from the British Psychological Society

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-31/february-2018/kindness-societys-golden-chain

Jacinda Ardern profile

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/31/jacinda-ardern-political-leaders-can-be-both-empathetic-and-strong

The Compassion Initiative

https://compassioninitiative.com.au/about-us/

Richard Dawkins

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p069hbbz#:~:text=How%20can%20we%20explain%20being,way%20our%20ancient%20ancestors%20lived.

The Smartest Giant in Town

https://axelscheffler.com/books-with-julia-donaldson/smartest-giant-in-town

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