Kindness: Worth the Punt?
Updated: May 10, 2022
So here we are in 2020’s Mental Health Awareness week. It really feels like a lifetime ago since last May and certainly things feel very different from how they did in 2019. To put it mildly, it’s been quite the year already…..
Brexit, presidential impeachments, bush-fires and let’s not forget the small matter of a global pandemic have really worn us rather thin. So it comes as no surprise then that in its 20th year the Mental Health Foundation replaced its original theme of sleep with something a bit more topical…a bit more profound…. step forward kindness.
So what is kindness?
For me, historically, the concept of kindness has been tricky…. it always felt wishy-washy...a thing I needed to do in order to be a “nice” person but never something I considered in any real depth. Before training as a psychologist, I considered it simply a one-way transaction of being nice to other people and rarely considered that I had missed the bigger, more meaningful, picture.
Formal definitions of kindness haven’t really helped me either (they never do) and often run along the slightly ambiguous lines of “…doing something towards yourself and others, motivated by a genuine desire to make a positive difference”. Others focus on kindness being a quality or an act associated with being helpful, caring and gentle. It can also be entangled conceptually with other word-minefields such as compassion and altruism.
But let’s not over-complicate things. The important point for me here is that I’ve come to understand that kindness isn’t just about being helpful, caring or gentle to others…. it’s also about being helpful, caring and gentle towards ourselves. For me personally, this point in particular has provided….and still provides…. a rather steep learning curve.
Kindness: A Risky Business?
The issue with the idea of being kind towards myself is that quite often my inner perfectionist will be a vocal opponent. It sternly reminds me that a mere global pandemic is no reason to let myself off the hook…and that others around me are both coping better and looking better as they skilfully manage their work/life integrations. In essence, that critical inner voice tells me there is no time for kindness….and in actual fact…. kindness maybe a risk that can lead to failure. For my perfectionist, desperate-to-achieve brain…that’s a no-go.
On paper, we might even think that being kind to others is easier….but even then it’s not so straightforward. We may fear getting involved in situations way over our heads, or being asked to give too much or it might mean others see us as “less than” or needy if we need a top-up of kindness every now and then.
Taking a Risk on Kindness
So given these barriers why should we bother? Why should we take the risk?
Well for a start, research from the last 10 years tells us kindness is certainly worth bothering about. Studies have shown its power as an antidote to loneliness and isolation – two of modern’s life’s greatest ills (Pilkington et al. 2012; Otake et al. 2006; Kerr et al. 2014). It’s also been shown to reduce feelings of stress (Curry et al. 2018) as well encouraging feelings of confidence and optimism (Brown et al. 2012) (And who doesn’t need a good dose of that right now). It’s been argued that by helping those less fortunate we can gain a sense of perspective to our own issues and a sense of renewed purpose (Pavey et al. 2011). Physically, some researchers have even looked at how acts of kindness prompt the release of Oxytocin into the body leading to significant physiological changes in blood pressure and relaxation (Poulin & Holman, 2013)…. the list goes on.
Engaging with Kindness
As a psychologist this is all theoretically very convincing and certainly spells out a rationale for why embracing kindness both to ourselves and others is worth a punt. Yet despite this seemingly hard evidence the volume on my inner critic can remain high. How can I really convince myself of the value of engaging with kindness?
I’ve sat with these memories….I’ve visualised the who, what, where and when… I’ve thought about the detail….. how it made me feel…. When I give kindness the time…I can almost feel the benefits.
For me, one of the most powerful ways I have learned to engage with kindness is through actively bringing to mind examples of where I have been the recipient of kindness, or where I have given kindness to someone else (these often feel easier to bring to mind). And I haven’t just briefly thought about these…. I’ve sat with these memories….I’ve visualised the who, what, where and when… I’ve thought about the detail….. how it made me feel physically and emotionally…and I’ve tried to put words to that. When I give kindness the time…I can almost feel the benefits.
When I think about my work in a central London addiction clinic, when I think about the clients I’ve worked with, I can feel the emotion that comes with being there for someone who feels society has turned its back on them. I can remember the warmth and connection of a client remembering a random conversation about my attempts to start knitting and buying me a beginners guide to knitting despite them themselves having very little. Similarly, watching and focusing on the kindness displayed by others over the last few months has been a powerful reminder of why kindness is so connected to our humanity.
Yet there is also another point here. The memories I bring to mind when thinking about kindness probably wouldn’t make the contents of a biography….they aren’t the headline grabbing moments of my life. They are the small moments where someone reached out unexpectedly, or offered the praise my confidence needed when existential crisis #427 of the day was in full flow. Quite often it was someone simply sitting with me during the darkest of times.
I think about how important these seemingly small events were to me and I use that to counteract the sometimes endless stream of negativity coming from my inner critic. I use the fact that these examples of kindness ultimately did help me to achieve and prevented failure and use that sentiment to turn that inner critic from a stern taskmaster to a rather annoying family member who I can walk away from.
"I use the fact that kindness ultimately did help me to achieve and prevented failure.... and use that sentiment to turn that inner critic from a stern taskmaster to a rather annoying family member who I can walk away from".
Whether its volunteering, making donations, reaching out to a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, handwriting letters to loved ones or even just lending your ear to a colleague who you know is struggling – these are all examples of kindness in action. You don’t need to be a hero and it certainly doesn’t need to be complicated - you just have to lean into the vulnerability and the beauty that comes with extending your hand to others (and yourself) in need.
This pandemic offers us few positives but one maybe that it offers us a chance to really take stock of the value of kindness in our world….and how we want more of it in our societies as we move forward out of these difficult times.
To help support Mental Health Awareness Week, the mental health foundation is asking people to share stories and pictures (with permission) of kindness using the hastags #KindnessMatters and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek. They have a tremendous amount of resources on their website – please do take a look!
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Brown KM, Hoye R, Nicholson M. Self-Esteem, Self-Efficacy, and Social Connectedness as Mediators of the Relationship Between Volunteering and Well-Being. J Soc Serv Res. 2012;38(4):468–83.
Curry OS, Rowland LA, Van Lissa CJ, Zlotowitz S, McAlaney J, Whitehouse H. Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. J Exp Soc Psychol. 2018;76:320–9.
Kerr SL, O’Donovan A, Pepping CA. Can Gratitude and Kindness Interventions Enhance Well-Being in a Clinical Sample? J Happiness Stud. 2014;16(1):17–36.
Otake K, Shimai S, Tanaka-Matsumi J, Otsui K, Fredrickson BL. Happy people become happier through kindness: A counting kindnesses intervention. J Happiness Stud. 2006;7(3): 361–75.
Pavey L, Greitemeyer T, Sparks P. Highlighting relatedness promotes prosocial motives and behavior. Personal Soc Psychol Bull. 2011;37(7):905–17.
Pilkington PD, Windsor TD, Crisp DA. Volunteering and subjective well-being in midlife and older adults: The role of supportive social networks. Journals Gerontol – Ser B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2012;67 B(2):249–60.
Poulin MJ, Holman EA. Helping hands, healthy body? Oxytocin receptor gene and prosocial behaviour interact to buffer the association between stress and physical health. Horm Behav. 2013;63(3):510–7.