4 ways to bring more kindness into the world
In September 2018, Jacinda Ardern, the young and dynamic Prime Minister of New Zealand, stood before an almost-empty United Nations General Assembly hall and called for a new kind of leadership. Specifically, one centred on kindness.
Months later, in the wake of the tragic Christchurch mosque shootings, Ardern made headlines around the world for personifying the kind and empathetic leadership she had publicly touted. A few weeks later, a viral social media post highlighted the depths to which this compassionate leader embraced her ethos — revealing that she had quietly paid for the groceries of a beleaguered mother who, on a trip to the supermarket with two screaming toddlers, had forgotten to bring her wallet.
In a modern world that applauds aggressiveness and enables ruthlessness, it has become common to regard kindness as unnecessary, inhibiting or — worse still — a debilitating weakness. However, as humankind progresses deeper into the 21st century and seeks solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges, perhaps one of the most important things you can do is acknowledge that kindness is a powerful and desirable trait in yourself, in leaders and in society.
Just about every human on the planet has benefited from some form of kindness, and most will attest to how delightful and uplifting these experiences can be. However, beyond the anecdotal feel-good stories, researchers have begun to explore the empirical facts behind benevolence, compassion and other pro-social acts, and have unearthed an inherent desire in us to elevate and celebrate kindness.
For instance, a National Broadcasting Company (NBC) survey revealed that 70 per cent of employees would forgo a generous raise for a kinder boss. Other studies show that lovers prefer kindness over intelligence in their partners, and both teachers and parents would prefer children to exhibit kindness rather than achieve good grades. In addition, studies conducted around the world have provided evidence that a kind disposition enhances your physical attractiveness. Despite a societal paradigm, which asserts that kindness is a weakness, humans actually harbour a subconscious fondness for those who exhibit altruism and compassion.
The scientific truth is that kindness, whether you are offering it, receiving it or merely witnessing it, can trigger life-enhancing activity in your brain and your body.
Furthermore, research shows that this inherent yearning for compassion begins at a young age. For example, when asked what they would change about the world if given the power to do so, more than half of all children partaking in a recent State of the Kid survey indicated they would make the world a kinder place.
Unsurprisingly, research has also revealed that kindness is not just a societal ideal — something that you admire in others — but that it feels good, too. The scientific truth is that kindness, whether you are offering it, receiving it or merely witnessing it, can trigger life-enhancing activity in your brain and your body.
What kindness does to your brain
Historically, as a species, we have relied considerably on social connection and cooperation for our survival. Therefore, it is somewhat inevitable that biology would evolve to reward us for pro-social behaviour such as altruism, compassion and kindness. What may be surprising for many, however, is the extent to which kindness enhances your psychology and physiology.
One of the more recognisable benefits of kindness is the “helper’s high”, which is a term used to describe the wave of satisfaction that you experience when you do a good deed. Research conducted at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, has linked this elevating sensation to the brain’s pleasure and reward centres. The researchers determined that when you perform an act of kindness, these reward centres light up as if you are the recipient of the good deed.
Physiologically, you benefit from a boost of two mood-enhancing substances with each act of altruism or kindness: serotonin and oxytocin. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter best known for its happiness-enhancing properties. Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone” and aids with social and familial connection as well as optimism. Astonishingly, researchers have determined that this injection of goodness into your bloodstream occurs when you give kindness, when you receive kindness and when you simply witness such an act.
With so many physical and physiological benefits, it is perhaps unsurprising that a life of kindness can stimulate long-term health and wellbeing. For instance, a survey conducted by Harvard Business School revealed that those who are more altruistic also tend to be happier. Studies have also shown that those who perform regular acts of compassion — such as volunteering or donating to charity — often live longer, feel more energised and optimistic, and enjoy greater emotional and physical health.
Fortunately, researchers have discovered that kindness can be trained and strengthened with concerted practise, and that habitual altruism and compassion creates a self-perpetuating feedback loop. The more you practise kindness, the better you feel about yourself and your life. The better you feel, the more happiness and connectedness you experience. The more content and connected you are, the more inclined you are to extend acts of kindness to others.
Although only several decades old, the research literature on kindness is clear: kindness is not just a pleasurable social practice — it is a simple and effective tool that consistently and progressively enhances your wellbeing, outlook on life and your communities.
“I’m not a scientist but I know how I feel when I’m kind, and I know how I feel when someone is kind to me.” Leon Logothetis is a motivational speaker, philanthropist and creator and host of the Netflix series, The Kindness Diaries. For him, kindness is the perfect antidote to pervasive competitiveness, materialism and disconnection.
“As a broker in London, I was totally uninspired and chronically depressed. Sitting behind that desk there was no connection to a person’s heart; it was all about the mind, numbers, success and competition,” he explains. “When you put making money ahead of everything else, you lose your humanity,” he adds.
The 2004 biopic, The Motorcycle Diaries, changed Logothetis’ perspective of life and eventually propelled him on a purposeful journey into adventure, connection and kindness. For more than a decade he has been travelling, storytelling and exploring the true breadth of human connection. Its impact on his life, he says, has been profound.
“I’ve started to live beyond the mind. I live in a sphere that is heart-centred and that is about connecting with humanity. It’s a higher vibration than just making money, or success, or how you look, or winning. I’ve decided I want to come from the heart. I want to see you and I want you to see me,” he says.
According to Logothetis, kindness is one of the most powerful ways to ignite human connection and “heart-centred living”.
“Kindness changes our whole aura; our whole being. It’s a beautiful way to be”, he remarks. “When you’re kind to someone, you can feel that magic of human connection and we’ve kind of forgotten that. We think we’re super connected with our phones and the internet. But unless you’re in nature, or you’re connected with other human beings, you’re not truly connected.”
Kindness is most effective when it is unexpected, so actively look for ways to delightfully surprise people you know, and people you don’t.
Although commonly dubbed “the kindness guy”, Logothetis is hesitant to associate himself with the concept of random acts of kindness. “I actually don’t like the term ‘random acts of kindness’,” he remarks. “To me, it’s not about randomly being kind; it’s about being kind as often as you can, wherever you are. Just be kind.”
He does concede, however, that everyday kindness can be a challenge and he is pragmatic in his approach towards consistent compassion. “On some levels, kindness is easy. On some levels, when you’re having a bad day, it’s very hard. That’s when it becomes like a muscle,” Logothetis explains. “You build that muscle of kindness by being kind, even when you don’t feel like being kind.
“For me, kindness is a win-win. When I’m kind to you, you win and I win. And it’s important to realise that every single one of us has the opportunity to be kind. We get to choose how we show up,” he concludes.
Creating a kinder world
A kinder world is not just desirable, it also within your power to pursue and eventualise. However, the first step is to acknowledge and understand that, as much as you may wish for it to be so, kindness is not going to sweep over the globe like an inevitable sunrise. It’s going to take effort and persistence.
Put simply, a kind world is the result of billions of individual acts of kindnesses. Therefore, in order for the world to be kinder, what people have to do — as Logothetis has done — is become kinder individuals. Not think of being kinder. Not hope of being kinder. Not resolve to be kinder or claim you are kinder. In order to live in a kinder world, people need to actually make the decision in singular moments to spread and amplify kindness.
Thankfully, this is not as difficult as it may seem. By harnessing the power of every moment, there are four simple steps you can take to spread more kindness throughout your home, workplace and communities:
Throughout the day, practise being more aware of others around you. Lift your eyes from your phone, draw your thoughts back to the present moment and become aware of the people around you. What are they doing? What are they trying to accomplish? Is there something you can do to make their lives a little easier in that moment?
A kind world is so much more attainable when you learn to step out of your personal bubble. Follow impulses to smile at strangers, offer to carry heavy bags, pay for the coffee order behind you. Kindness is most effective when it is unexpected, so actively look for ways to delightfully surprise people you know, and people you don’t.
3. Applied empathy
There are more than 7 billion life stories on this planet that don’t resemble your own. Understanding this can help you embrace kindness in otherwise tense situations. Make one of your daily mantras “What’s their story?” A waiter makes a minor mistake on your order; what’s going on in their life that made them forget? A driver is wildly cutting through traffic; what stresses are they under to be in such a hurry?
By applying empathy, you allow yourself a greater opportunity to choose more conscious reactions. You may need to correct a wrong, but you can do so kindly. You may need to set boundaries or assert your position, but you can use gentle words. You may even find, in a moment of kind empathy, that you can forgive a transgression completely and move on without a word being said.
4. Natural connection
Kindness is a universal quality, and its effects need not be limited to the human race. If you are feeling a little jaded with humanity or are looking to amplify goodness in other ways, there are a multitude of ways to extend kindness to the animals around you and the earth you live on. Install a bird feeder in your front yard, leave water out for wildlife on hot sunny days, foster a homeless pet, plant a tree or decline disposable cutlery with your take-out meal. Look for ways to be kind to the environment and the creatures that share the earth with us.
Kindness is a vital human characteristic that most people are yearning for in their lives. When you stop to acknowledge the health-boosting benefits that you gain from partaking in simple acts of compassion and altruism, it is clear that kindness ought to be prioritised in your day-to-day life. By making simple yet deliberate changes to the way you interact with the world around you, you have an opportunity to lift, help, inspire, support, surprise and delight others in kind and thoughtful ways.
A kind world is yours to create. All you need to do is take responsibility for the part you play in this tapestry of life and make kindness a wondrous, life-enhancing daily habit.