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The Oxford English Dictionary defines kindness as ‘the quality of being kind, to treat someone with kindness and consideration.’ What then does it mean to be kind? From the Cambridge English Dictionary: ‘generous, helpful, and caring about other people.’
Being kind seems to be a high-level skill; it requires the ability to see through the eyes of another, then to imagine what they need, emotionally. Kindness seems to come from, or be related to empathy.
What are the benefits of kindness? How does it benefit society and the overall well-being of its people? Kindness seems to have curative properties, as Lady Gaga aptly put it: ‘I’ve been searching for ways to heal myself, and I’ve found that kindness is the best way.’
Kindness creates rapport, and stronger bonds between people. It has been known for a very long time that when people cooperate, they are better able to survive. Indeed, it seems that we have evolved as a cooperative species. Kindness may have evolved as part of cooperation.
Even thinking kind thoughts, kindness-based meditation, has shown positive health benefits, and improved relationships.
When kindness has been studied in an educational setting, it has been found to increase well-being AND academic outcomes, and has an effect greater than the big five personality factors. That is, kindness is good for society as a whole. A population educated to a higher standard, with a shared approach to others, kindness, can better help their own society.
If you are already a happy person, here is more great news: happy people become happier through acts of kindness. Kindness is the gift that keeps giving back, multiplied.
If kindness is so beneficial, in what ways can we create a kinder society? Do any such methods work?
Kindness education programmes have been around for many years, and the evidence indicates that they work, or at least some of them do. Our understanding of what makes-up kindness, is a long way from complete, but empathy plays a large part, and in kindness education programmes (the same approach is given many names across the globe), empathy can be enhanced very quickly. Empathy on its own cannot be kindness. You and I can empathise with someone 10,000 miles away and be utterly incapable of showing any kindness, because of language, distance and governmental barriers.
Before an act of kindness takes place, it seems, there are many steps. First there has to be awareness of the other person.
If awareness is present perhaps there needs to be motive to engage with the other. If awareness and motive are present then perhaps there has to be effective communication, then understanding, then the ability to be able to be generous, helpful or caring, then the willingness of the person potentially receiving the kindness to accept it. If all the obvious prerequisites for kindness are in place, what are the conditions for kindness that are not so clear? What are the other factors and steps involved in acts of kindness?
Is kindness a default setting for some, and contingent for others? If habitual for some, why? What made kindness a habit? In those for whom kindness is contingent, what is the basis of the decision to offer kindness, or not?
If kindness can be contingent for some, that seems to indicate that kindness is not hardwired; that maybe it is a self-serving choice. Or maybe some or all people can override their hardwiring if they need to. There is great complexity behind simple acts of kindness.
Most of us want to be kind, and will do so, assuming it won’t harm us if we do. When we are able and willing to be kind, we may never know the good we do, or the knock-on effects that good could have. Your eye contact, smile and friendly word could prevent the suicide of someone who will now go on to do much good in the world. Your supportive comment given at the end of a long health-care shift could give that person the morale boost that gives them the energy and focus to save a life tomorrow. That saved life could be the person who was just about to make a scientific breakthrough that could benefit all your offspring.
Kindness is good for the person receiving, and giving, and the knock-on effects can cascade across the globe and down the generations.
I think the last word should go to Og Mandino: ‘Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.’
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the leadership coaching practice PsyPerform and is a visiting professor at the University of Bolton.