“If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.” (Lucy Larcom)
As I was thinking about what to write this week, I stumbled upon an article that resonated deeply with me. Juliana Breines, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow at Brandeis University, wrote an article entitled “Three Strategies for Bringing More Kindness into Your Life” for U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
She describes 10 core kindness practices, under three broad categories, that research shows will enhance kindness and generosity, leading to increased overall satisfaction with life. What’s not to like here?
Cultivating Feelings of Kindness
The first category of kindness practices deals with cultivating feelings of kindness. For each of the painless strategies enumerated, there are research studies showing their effectiveness in enhancing our desires to be kind and compassionate.
Feeling Connected Practice – This practice asks us to think about a time when we felt strongly connected to another person—perhaps by a shared experience or a profound conversation. Research has shown that this simple exercise increases concern for others and spurs intentions to perform generous acts. The explanation for this outcome, according to Breines, is, “feeling connected to others satisfies a fundamental psychological need to belong; when this need is unmet, people are more likely to focus on their own needs rather than caring for others.”
Feeling Supported Practice – Another simple practice, this one involves thinking about a time you were comforted or supported by others and the qualities and actions of those people who supported you. Research has shown that this practice increases our compassion and willingness to assist a person in need or in distress. In addition to instilling a feeling of “attachment security,” this practice reminds us of the qualities we want to exhibit in ourselves.
Take an Awe Walk – I love this one. An awe walk is a stroll to a place that makes us feel “connected to something greater than ourselves.” It might be the ocean, a forest, or whatever to us seems immense and “perspective-shifting.” For each of us, that awe walk may be a different destination—it might be a lengthy hike, or a few steps from our back door. What’s your awe walk?
Compassion Meditation Practice – This is often referred to as lovingkindness meditation. It’s a practice combining breathing with extending feelings of goodwill toward oneself, one’s loved ones, acquaintances and strangers, and even people we dislike. Breines cites research that just two weeks of compassion meditation result in more generous behaviors and even alteration in the part of our brains that govern compassion and emotional responses. You can find many guides to compassion meditation on-line, including the Greater Good in Action website.
Pause: Before we move to the next category of kindness practices, pause and think about doing some of the above. Schedule an awe walk or think about when you feel connected or supported. Look into the lovingkindness meditation practice.
Increasing the Happiness We Get from Kindness
This next set of strategies deals with ways to be more intentional about practicing kindness in our own lives—and turning kindness into a habit. If you want to increase the number of kind and generous acts you perform, try these proven practices:
Random Acts of Kindness – Such acts are usually simple, spontaneous actions, such as picking up the tab for a stranger’s coffee, putting money in the meter so someone doesn’t get a ticket, or donating blood. This practice suggests performing five random acts in a single day and then writing about the experience. If you’d like more ideas about random acts of kindness, Buzzfeed has a great list of 101 suggestions. Breines notes that performing random acts of kindness both lifts our spirits and increases our self-esteem.
Making Giving Feel Good – There’s a difference between giving because we feel pressured or obligated to do so and giving because we want to. The former may not feel good and may even lead to resentment. The latter does feel good and increases our personal satisfaction. To avoid the negative feelings, we need to make giving a choice—whether we are being asked to give or asking others to give—it must be okay to say no. An additional way to make giving feel good is to make a connection with the recipient of your kindness—don’t just hand a homeless person a couple of dollars and hurry on; take a moment to make eye-contact and exchange a few kind words—it’s easy and it will make you both feel good. Another is to learn about the impact of your generosity—if you give time or money to a cause, take time to learn about how people are positively impacted by your generosity.
Inspiring Kindness in Others
The next set of practices are ways to help others see the value of kindness and engage in kind actions.
Reminders of Connectedness – This is simply examining our surroundings and looking for ways to create reminders of the importance of kindness and connectedness. It might be pictures of people working together placed on the walls of a classroom, a letter of thanks from someone who was helped by our work on the bulletin board at our office, or an inspiring quotation at the top of a board meeting agenda. Look around your place of work for places to convey your team’s connectedness or your shared mission.
Putting a Face on Human Suffering – Sometime kindness requires a kick in the pants—to help us overcome that powerful inertia that keeps us from acting. Sharing pictures or stories of people in need often lights a fire of action and involvement—motivating people to help. Remember the pictures last month of the Syrian child who had drowned in his family’s harrowing sea journey to freedom? That photo motivated more people to action than all the faceless reports of data related to the humanitarian crisis. Similarly, we’ve seen many times that a photo of an abandoned dog or cat in a cage at the humane society spurs the adoption of stray animals far better than reports citing the statistics of homeless animals.
Shared Identity – This practice asks us to explore ways of forging a sense of our common humanity across group boundaries. Whether it is our common love for our children or mutual passion for a sport, we can overcome fear and mistrust by developing a sense of shared affinity. When we take time to think about it, we have so many more similarities than differences with the people who may seem alien to us.
Encouraging Kindness in Kids – If we can instill kindness at an early age, we can change the world. Strategies for nurturing children’s natural propensity toward kindness and generosity include avoiding external rewards for kind behavior so kids see that kindness is its own reward; praising kids’ character so they come to see themselves as kind; when criticism is called for, criticizing the child’s behavior, not their character; and modeling kindness ourselves.
As I review this list of strategies and behaviors that promote kindness, I’m struck by the fact that none of them are difficult, they simply require practice. Like anything we want to do well—from public speaking, to ping-pong, to piano playing—we get good at it by practicing. I can’t think of anything more worthwhile to practice than kindness. Can you?
“You must take personal responsibility. You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons or the wind, but you can change yourself. That is something you have charge of.” (Jim Rohn)