Saturday, 3 August 2013


So, here we are on day 3 of #HappinessHappens Month and I've decided to pick kindness to focus on today.

Kindness is kind of inextricably linked with yesterday's giving...I'm not sure you can give in an unkind way. But, there are a few nuances to kindness not covered by the whole giving thing.

As  it happens, I don't really think I like the word 'kind'. It sounds a bit sort of wishy washy and twee. It's the sort of word that seems reserved for pre-school children who won't share or who insist on pulling Jennifer's pigtails. I hear the phrase 'kind hands' rather a lot at work. (no offence to anybody named Jennifer or with pigtails, no idea where that came from, totally random choice of name).

On the other hand I'd hate for anybody to consider either me or my behaviour to be unkind.

And there's absolutely no denying that kindness is both an incredibly aspirational and powerful trait.

In fact one of the findings of the science of happiness into the habits of happy people, is that caring or
compassionate (ergo kind) people tend to be happier.

Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism are all based on compassion.  In fact Buddhism teaches loving kindness to all living things. ALL living things, including wasps, as annoying as they are. You can read more about my real life experience of that here

The Dalai Lama said "if you want to be happy, practice compassion"

And like happiness, acts of kindness and compassion tend to be quite contagious, creating a ripple effect out around them, not just for the giver and the receiver who chances are will 'pay it forward', but also for the inspired onlooker.

But what does 'kindness' really mean? According to the dictionary it means benignity, benevolence, humanity, generosity, charity,sympathy, compassion, tenderness. To be kind is to be gentle, considerate, helpful, gracious and sympathetic.

Lots of big worthy sounding words that mean generally being a jolly nice sort.

So, it's pretty obvious that being on the receiving end of all of this would feel pretty good. Nobody could deny it's nice when somebody is kind to us. But what about being on the other end? What about being the one doing the kindness? Does exuding kindness ourselves really do us any good?

Well, countless studies say yes.

For a start, many studies show increased brain activity amongst buddhist monks who practice loving kindness meditation. Not only that but Stanford University found a connection between loving kindness meditation and a feeling of social connection; Duke Medical Centre saw an improvement in back pain sufferers after an 8 week loving kindness meditation programme and Barbara Fredrickson found that a loving kindness meditation practice increased daily experiences of positive emotions which in turn increased a whole raft of personal resources such as a sense of purpose in life.

But what about those of us who don't dress in flowing orange robes and sit around meditating all day?* What about just generally being nice and kind to people day to day?

Good news there too. In a study published in 2010 in The Journal of Social Psychology researchers had participants perform a random act of kindness every day for 10 days. At the end of the 10 days their reported levels of life satisfaction and happiness had, you guessed it, increased versus the control.  And, like with giving, the happier we feel the more likely we are to be kind, which makes us happy...and so on. 

But actually, none of this is news. For any Darwin fans out there, you're probably aware of his "survival of the fittest" theory.  Which is a bit of a strange thing to bring up in a post about kindness and therefore altruism, since really, that's all about the opposite, about 'the selfish gene'.  Well it would be, if 'survival of the fittest' was actually Darwin's phrase. It wasn't, it was coined by Herbert Spencer and picked up by other social Darwinists. Closer examination of Darwin's early work on human kind shows that 'survival of the kindest' is actually a much closer summary of his views and his findings that social and maternal instincts and sympathy are amongst the most important factors in raising offspring and evolution.

But did we really need all of this research?  Just stop and think for a minute about the last time you were kind to somebody or something. How did it make you feel? How do you feel now recalling that time? Conversely, I know I tend to feel pretty crappy when I've been horrible to somebody. Being unkind definitely depletes my happy. And I don't know about you, but I really don't like to witness unkindness either. It makes me feel really sad and indignant, and a deep sense of injustice. So, it's not rocket science, it's just nice to have the science to back it up. But really we all knew already that being kind is just, well, kind. 

So how do we do it? I'm not going to answer that one. It's easy. Just stop being a big grumpy pants, swallow your pride and just be kind.  Almost any act of kindness boosts happiness...thoughts, words, actions; random or planned; grand sweeping gesture or thoughtful little touch; little passing compliment or larger helping hand. Whatever it is, just do or say it.

But a quick caveat, in the midst of all this being kind to everybody else, please don't forget to be kind to yourself first...often the hardest to do, but crucial nonetheless. Read my post about that here

So there we have it. Being kind makes you happy. And that's kinda cool.

* Ok, I was being a bit facetious with my orange robes comment. Meditation isn't just for monks perched on mountain tops and is a very good habit to get into. There are many kinds of meditation but If you'd like to give the loving kindness sort a go there are many beginner guides online. As meditation is such a personal practice I'm specifically not including a link to any one guided meditation here as my favourite might  not work for you.

If guided meditation isn't for you or you can't be bothered to faff about online, try this:
Bring to mind somebody you really love and focus on them in your mind (you can visualise them or just think about them if visualisation doesn't come easily). Then literally just send them loving thoughts, like "I wish you happiness/peace/success/protection from harm". Make the words your own but keep the general gist. Interestingly you don't actually need to really feel/believe what you're saying for it to work. Anyway, do the same for somebody who's been a big support for you. Repeat for somebody you know is having a bit of trouble recently. Then do the same thing for somebody you barely know at all...this is key.  Finally, repeat it for yourself (for some reason that bit is often the hardest).

Alternatively, if you don't want to 'meditate' as such at all, try this one. Next time you're sitting on the bus/tube or strolling down the street, look at the people you pass and just  think to yourself something along the lines of "I wish you happiness" or whatever version of that you find most comfortable/least cringey.  And NB, you'll probably feel ridiculous the first time you do it but keep at it! Is interesting to see how it gives you a little bit of an uplift and is especially effective for people being a bit irritating...rather than mutter about them under your breath, smile and wish them happiness under your breath. Puts you in a much better mood!

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