Imagine if the whole world was a kinder place. What a difference that would make. Practising the art of kindness and giving isn’t just about digging deep for charity: it’s showing compassion and thoughtfulness towards others; a spur-of-the-moment act of generosity or a valued commitment to volunteer for a cause you believe in.
Being kind to others not only makes you feel good — sometimes a simple act of kindness can have a ripple effect; your good deed flows into the receiver’s stream of consciousness and they, too, can look for opportunities to pass it on.
At its very core, kindness is about empathy, being aware of your environment and seeking ways to selflessly enrich the lives of others. And giving to others benefits the giver as well as the receiver; it nourishes the spirit as it shifts our inner focus from ourselves to others. Researchers call this sense of inner warmth and satisfaction that results from doing good deeds for another a “helper’s high”. This euphoric state produces physiological sensations that reduce stress levels, and regulates the heart rate, lowering blood pressure.
All around the world, there are many big-hearted individuals who practise daily acts of kindness. Patience Salgado, who is known as “kindness girl”, leaves $5 vouchers in shop backpacks for the first day of school and scrawls messages of hope on footpaths. There’s a seven-year-old girl who has raised enough money to give 700 teddy bears to hospital patients, and a group called Wake Up in Sydney who’ve sent out more than 75,000 free kindness cards to encourage random acts of kindness.
I have friends who dedicate countless hours volunteering, spreading the word about sustainable living; they also oversee community gardens and other environmental projects. Another friend travels overseas each year with her family to different destinations on adventure holidays, trekking through rugged terrain, camping in remote villages and spending time with children in orphanages, leaving behind gifts of food, clothing and hope.
With the acts of such people in mind, I set myself a challenge: for one week, I’d practise as many acts of kindness as I could. I’d follow my heart and open my mind to the endless possibilities that exist to sprinkle around a little joy.
It’s cool to be kind
That first morning, I held an umbrella for a stranger trying to carry parcels to the car in the rain; we both got drenched in the end but laughed together as my umbrella turned inside out in the wind.
I walked through the supermarket pushing my laden trolley and vowed to smile at every single person I passed. I must admit I felt a little silly at first, but you know what? All of them smiled back at me!
The next day I watched children’s eyes shine with happiness and was treated to lots of big toothy grins when I handed out balloons in the street. Then I went along to a play centre and popped coins into a few lolly dispensers so the next child to try their luck without a coin would get a special sweet surprise.
I also promised myself I’d offer a sincere compliment to someone every day. As I discovered, even simple gestures, words or deeds can lift a heavy heart and put a spring in someone’s step.
My next kindness mission was to visit a hospital with a bunch of pretty spring blooms from my Garden, which I gave to a nurse to pass on to a patient, one who hadn’t had many visitors to brighten their day. I also bought some packets of inexpensive crayons and colouring-in books to share around the children in the children’s ward.
After meeting a friend for an afternoon coffee later that week, I smiled the whole way home after chatting with, and then secretly picking up the tab of, an elderly lady in a threadbare cardigan at a nearby table, who was eating a cake and sipping a cup of tea.
On the weekend at my son’s soccer match, I handed out cellophane-wrapped chocolate-chip kindness cookies I’d baked, with messages of hope and spiritual affirmations. Most people happily took them; some wanted to know how much they cost or what I was raising money for. I replied that they were kindness cookies and they were free!
As I discovered, when you give a gift to a stranger on the street, some might ask what the catch is or look at you with suspicion, wondering if you have a hidden agenda. If that happens, and they don’t accept your gift of kindness, just smile and walk away.
The art of sharing
Kindness means many things to many people, and one is giving others the gift of compassion. I’ve always donated bags of clothing to charity stores, but I wanted to do something different on my kindness mission: to give to a women’s shelter.
After a few phone calls, what I discovered was heartbreaking: many women seek refuge in these shelters with little more than the clothes on their backs. I was told they desperately needed warm winter clothing and I also included some preloved toys in the care package. For obvious reasons, the locations of these women are always a carefully guarded secret and, in what felt like a clandestine operation, I rendez-vous’d with them in the carpark of a fast-food restaurant, where the donation was exchanged for a heartfelt thankyou.
Passing along things you no longer need is indeed an easy way to share kindness with others. A friend in Sydney reads books and then leaves them out front of her unit with a note for passers-by to take them, enjoy them and pass them on. Now I do the same.
Practising the art of kindness can also mean saying thank you, whether it’s publicly acknowledging someone on Facebook or Twitter or writing a note of thanks to someone who inspired you and positively influenced your life. I tried to contact a teacher from my high school who had always encouraged me to follow my dreams. I wanted to thank her for her unfailing belief in me, but sadly I’d left it too late. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to track her down. So don’t wait if you want to reach out to someone; there never is a better time to say thank you than right now.
I wanted to share a little kindness with our troops overseas, too. Regardless of our opinion of war and fighting overseas, many Aussie soldiers are barely out of their teens — baby-faced fighters who want to honour and serve their country. I can’t imagine for a moment how it must feel to be so far away from loved ones, so I wrote to them thanking them for their courage, sacrifice and bravery.
But, of course, kindness isn’t just about helping strangers; it’s also about sharing with your family and friends how much they mean to you. It’s letting them know how much you love them and why. I hid a funny, uplifting love note in my husband’s lunchbox. He called me to tell me he’d been having a tough day and it made him smile (and his workmates, too!).
I told my 12-year-old son I loved him for his sense of humour and his cool dress sense. He hugged me tightly and cleaned his room without being asked for a whole week.
Kindness is also giving someone you love the opportunity to take time out from their busy life. My sister’s boisterous two-year-old is a bundle of fun with boundless energy. While my sister had a facial and massage, I spent precious time with my niece, making a chocolate cake (and lots of mess), finger painting (more mess) and chasing our 10-week-old golden retriever puppy around the yard.
Other acts of giving back
People don’t need to be the only targets for your kindness. We can all practise the art of being kinder to our environment, too. An elderly person who lives in my street takes a long walk each day and fills a bag with rubbish along the way. I visited an off-leash dog park and, while my playful puppy made lots of new doggy friends, I strolled around and chatted with other dog owners as I filled a bag with litter.
Another way to be kind to the environment is to have an eco-friendly, screen-free night, which I proceeded to do much to our teenager’s angst. No tablets, Facebook, DVDs, instant messaging or TV. Instead, we cooked dinner together, played board games and then ate mountains of popcorn and talked to each other. It’s truly amazing how a technology-free, energy-saving evening can help you find new ways to connect with your family without the incessant drone of white noise buzzing or beeping.
There are so many ways we can show kindness. Sometimes I think kindness can be holding your tongue before you speak — especially with those we love. After all, you don’t truly know what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes; you don’t know what burdens and fears they carry in their heart.
I believe kindness is practising the art of forgiveness of others, too: letting go of fear and anger and looking at situations and events with empathy rather than judgement. It’s mending broken friendships and reaching out to others to let them know you care. I renewed what had once been a special friendship that had dwindled through neglect, and I vowed to spend more time nurturing my friendships and relationships with others.
Being kind also means being kinder to ourselves; it means allowing yourself to slow down — you don’t have to do everything right now. It’s resolving to try to live your life moment by precious moment and to enjoy the here and now, to do something positive for yourself every single day.
Pass it on, no return
What have I learned from my foray into the world of utter kindness? Above all, I’ve learned one of the greatest gifts of kindness you can give someone is the gift of your time. This means making time in your busy life for those who matter to you. It’s listening with your whole heart and with patience and understanding when another shares a story, instead of rushing in to share your news. It’s hugging someone tightly when they are frightened or sad. It’s shooting the breeze with a friend who is feeling blue, helping a neighbour fix a flat tyre, or taking the time to give directions to a stranger on the street.
Kindness is a gift from the heart. It’s believing we can all make a difference to this big, crazy world we live in, just by being a little kinder to each other. As I discovered, random acts of kindness can make your heart sing and bring a smile to the face of strangers. Practising the gentle art of conscious giving through random acts of kindness lifts your spirit and allows you to rediscover your energetic, creative and playful self. Look all around you and you’ll see opportunities to show compassion, kindness and thoughtfulness everywhere. Pass it on.
Follow your heart and do what you can to make the world a kinder place:
- Tell your parents or siblings how much you truly love them, how they have inspired you and why they mean so much to you.
- Instead of eye rolling and grumbling when your husband (or wife) commandeers the TV remote, let them watch their favourite show without protest.
- Spend some time with an elderly relative or friend in the garden. Pull a few weeds or mow their lawn, then immerse yourself in the quiet Beauty of nature.
- Volunteer with your child at an animal shelter to walk dogs or feed the animals.
- Get into the habit of digging through your wardrobe and giving away an item of clothing for charity when you buy something new.
- Next time you are in a drive-through, or toll, pay for the person behind you in the queue.
- Surprise your local rural fire brigade, ambulance or volunteer organisation with freshly baked cookies or muffins to share and say thank you.
- Look for ways to be kinder to the environment every day: turn off lights, save water, nurture your garden.
Carrol Baker is a freelance journalist who writes for lifestyle and health magazines across Australia. She loves exploring the great outdoors with her young family.