The Importance of Kindness in a Crisis

sign reading kindness with rainbow to illustrate blog on the importance of kindnessI want to talk about the importance of kindness, that quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.

Psychological research has shown that empathy and altruism are innate (Warnecken & Tomasello, 2009), and emerge spontaneously in early childhood.  And yet, somehow, some of us unlearn that behaviour.  Kindness is sometimes seen as softness or weakness.  Empathy may be set aside in a target driven, fear fuelled world.

However, in the current covid-19 situation, it is evident that real acts of kindness often take courage and strength.  Just think about all the key-workers putting their own health at risk in order to provide care, education, goods and services for the rest of us.  This example alone shows us the importance of kindness in a crisis.  But we aren’t all key workers and, although staying at home is the very kindest thing we can do for ourselves and other people, in-action doesn’t always feel as good as action.

However, there are many ways to demonstrate kindness whilst maintaining a safe physical distance.

Be kind to yourself

Everything you do begins with you.  Being kind to yourself will enable you to have the inner resources you need to be kind to others.  If you have ever flown on a plane you will know that, in an emergency, you must put on your own oxygen mask before you help anyone else to put on theirs.

Being kind to yourself will vary massively from person to person but should always be positive in intent (rather than the more negatively connoted selfishness).  Your actions should not cause unnecessary upset to anyone else.  Taking a long bath and enjoying some peace and quiet is being kind to yourself.  Using all the hot water and preventing the rest of your family from using the only toilet might be construed as selfishness.  It helps to evaluate behaviour in terms of context and ecology.

Be kind to the rest of your household

If you live with other people think about the ways in which you can be kinder to them.

The first thing that you can do is to focus on an absence of unkindness.  Being inside with your family all day everyday can be challenging and can magnify stress and fear.  Watching videos of other families singing songs from musicals or running a perfect home-schooling schedule, whilst entertaining, can lead to a sense of inadequacy too.  If all you are managing is binge watch box sets that’s fine, just try to do that with kindness and love.  Maintain boundaries but reduce the grumpiness.

Next you can add in positive acts of kindness.  Small things; a timely hug, a cup of tea, sharing IT equipment and skills, being fair about time-out can all make a huge difference to this strange and unusual experience.  Empathy matters.  Take the time to notice when someone else in your household needs something.

The benefits of such small acts of kindness extend beyond the immediate.   Ty Tashiro points out in his book The Science of Happily Ever After, that kindness is the single greatest predictor of stable and happy marriages.  Studies have also shown that kindness reduces anxiety and being kind sets up a chain reaction of kindness so being kind to others is also an indirect way of being kind to yourself.

Be kind to the wider world.

Being kind to the wider world might seem like too much to ask when you are struggling to get through each day.  Maybe you are already balancing the need to work from home, loss of income, child care, school work and sourcing essential supplies whilst maintaining a safe physical distance from others.  Maybe you are alone and lonely and wondering how to get help yourself.  Life itself can seem exhausting even without the fear of illness.

Kindness still matters.

As in the section above you can start with an absence of unkindness.

For many people, contact with the world outside is happening via social media.  Be mindful of what you post.  Ask yourself is it true?  Is it kind?  Check your sources.  Fear is as contagious as Covid-19, try not to spread fear with unsubstantiated information and speculation.  If you don’t know for sure, don’t comment or share.  Don’t feed the fear.

Having eliminated unkindness, think about what you can do to make someone else’s life better.    Focussing on someone other than yourself has been shown to increase hope, positivity and personal well-being.  Your actions can be as simple as picking up litter on your daily walk or as complex as setting up an on-line forum to co-ordinate help in your community.  For most people it will be somewhere in the middle.  Just do what works for you.  It has been found that happy people become happier through kindness.

Throughout this crisis I have seen many of the negative aspects of fear.  But I have also seen the importance of kindness revealed in community, support and hope.

When this is all over, and life returns to some semblance of normality, it will be good to know that you were part of the solution and that all you passed on was a little kindness.

Kindness Matters

Pema Chodron quote to illustrate blog Kindness Matters. Everywhere I look I see memes and tweets telling me that kindness matters.  At the same time I see multiple examples of unkindness and intolerance.  So what’s going on?

First of all, let’s look at why kindness matters.  There is a wealth of psychological research which shows that kindness benefits the giver as well as the recipient.  Being kind has health benefits, can contribute to the giver’s happiness and can strengthen relationships.

Being kind to others can improve a person’s immediate sense of well-being but it can also have a bigger impact.  Depending on the act, kindness can alleviate loneliness, promote happiness and develop a sense of community.  It doesn’t matter whether you smile at a stranger in the street, take flowers to a friend or donate blood – all acts of kindness are valid.

Having established that kindness matters, and that it is the ultimate win/win, why is it that some people do not show kindness to others in all their interactions?

A lack of kindness isn’t automatically unkindness.  Sometimes people operate in a neutral zone – they are not openly kind to others but they are not actively unkind either.  This may be because they are just too pre-occupied with their own problems to notice or care what’s happening to other people.

Sometimes people are actively unkind.  This unkindness may extend to everybody else in which case it probably stems from some deep rooted unhappiness.  Alternatively, some people are unkind to people who are different to them in some specific way.  This unkindness is often associated with fear. (Think racism, sexism, elitism, Brexit etc.)

If you want to belong to a kinder, more considerate community then kindness has to start with you.  If you are feeling below par and are struggling, start off by being kind to yourself then project your kindness out into the world.  Think of it like the oxygen mask on a plane – you have to help yourself in order to help others.

Once you feel able to be kind to others, start small.  A smile, a kind word, letting someone with one or two items step in front of you in a supermarket queue are all important acts of kindness.  In making other people happy you will notice that they will start to smile too, may offer kindness in return and all those good feelings will be reflected back at you.  Keep it up, you might start a kindness revolution.

When you are all topped up you might be able to offer bigger acts of kindness.  Volunteering your time to help others is wonderfully kind and gives you a great feeling too.  Another win/win.

Finally, get ready for the ultimate kindness challenge:  Being kind to people who you don’t like.  If you find yourself complaining about people it is time to focus on what makes you the same rather than what makes you different.  Challenge your own prejudice and be kind.  Sometimes kindness takes you way outside your comfort zone.  (If you really can’t bring yourself to be kind at least resist the urge to be unkind.)

So, back to those memes.  Kindness does matter.  “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  “Throw kindness around like confetti.”

What wonderful acts of kindness have you committed today?