A Dozen Reasons to Choose Kindness

“Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.” (Theodore Isaac Rubin)

attribution: Donna CameronThe decision to make kindness a central element in our lives does not automatically imbue us with that important quality. Like so many other things we choose to care about, that’s just the beginning. Practice is required if we want to become proficient. Just as they say you need to practice if you want to play the piano well … or you need to write regularly if you want to be a writer … or you need to practice your swing if you want to shoot par in golf, you also need to strengthen your kindness muscle by using it regularly. The result—eventually—will be that kindness comes naturally and even sometimes effortlessly. That’s the sweet spot.

But, of course, if we’re going to practice something, there needs to be a good reason. If it’s writing, maybe you want to be published, or you want to be able to express yourself through stories that will entertain or inspire. If it’s piano, maybe you want to connect with the music, be part of a jazz combo, or entertain friends. If it’s golf, you’re simply a masochist.

With regard to kindness, it should be enough just to know it’s the right thing to do, but there are also some really good reasons to choose kindness and to practice it until it becomes ingrained in our reflexes. Here are a few:

  1. Kindness is good for our health. There have been several studies about the health benefits of kindness. They show that people who are routinely kind get relief from chronic pain, stress, and insomnia, and they also have increases in happiness, optimism, and self-worth. More specifically:
  2. Kindness has a positive effect on the body’s immune system, as well as on the production of serotonin in the brain.  Serotonin is a chemical created by the human body that has a calming, anti-anxiety effect.
  3. Kindness is good for your heart: Acts of kindness often generate an emotional warmth, which produces the hormone oxytocin in the brain and body, which, in turn, releases nitric oxide in blood vessels causing them to dilate and lower one’s blood pressure, acting as a cardio-protective agent. Oxytocin also reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardio-vascular system, thus reducing heart disease.
  4. Kindness slows aging: That same reduction of free radicals and inflammation slows aging in the human body. Compassion has similarly been linked to activity in the vagus nerve, which also regulates heart rate and controls inflammation levels in the body.
  5. Kindness makes us happier: Kindness elevates the levels of dopamine in the brain, giving us a “natural high.” It has been shown to substantially increase happiness and reduce depression.
  6. Kindness improves relationships: Connecting with one another is actually a genetic predisposition, according to researcher David Hamilton, PhD: “Our evolutional ancestors had to learn to cooperate with one another. The stronger the emotional bonds within groups, the greater the chances of survival, so ‘kindness genes’ were etched into the human genome.” As a result, kindness helps us build new relationships and enhance existing ones.
  7. Kindness is contagious: Just as colds and flu are contagious in a bad way, so is kindness in a good way. Kindness begets more kindness. “When we’re kind,” Dr. Hamilton says, “we inspire others to be kind, and it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends—to three degrees of separation.” Whether one extends kindness, receives kindness, or merely witnesses kindness, the result is the same: it acts as a catalyst for more kindness.
  8. Kindness alleviates social anxiety: Recent research showed that engaging in acts of kindness reduced levels of social anxiety and social avoidance. Individuals who performed acts of kindness reported lower levels of discomfort and anxiety about social interaction, and were more able to participate in group activities.
  9. Kindness is a good reason to get ample rest and sleep: It’s been shown that sleep helps us be kinder. So getting your zzzz’s is a way of extending kindness toward yourself and the planet. You don’t need an excuse for that afternoon siesta! In addition, extending kindness when we’re tired can be as replenishing as a cat-nap, or a jolt of java.
  10. Kindness has been linked to greater life satisfaction: Those who regularly extend generosity and perform acts of kindness report higher degrees of satisfaction with their lives.
  11. Kindness make the workplace more productive and enjoyable: – A kind work environment helps employees feel more engaged; it improves morale, builds loyalty and engagement, reduces absences, and increases profits. Forget all those old-school books on winning through intimidation and fear; kindness is a better business model.
  12. Kindness serves life: Kindness guides us to look for the positive rather than the negative, to seek the best in the people we encounter, and to embrace abundance: we have enough and we are enough. When we do these things, we offer our best selves to life, and help manifest the world as we want it to be.

We don’t really need reasons to extend kindness—kindness is simply the best expression of who and what we are. But in the face of myriad deadlines and obligations it’s easy to look for shortcuts and overlook opportunities to extend kindness, so it never hurts to remind ourselves that there are really good reasons to be kind.

And to practice kindness daily….

“Our greatest gift is to allow ourselves to feel alive in this sea, moving with the tides of lovingkindness as they move into us, through us, out of us into others, only to return again and again.” (Wayne Muller)

Bippidi-Boppidi-Boo: The Magic of Kindness

“When you open a door for others, you sometimes open doors for yourself.” (Donald L. Hicks)

CinderellaImagine if Cinderella had been too shy to go to the ball. It would have been a very different story, or, in fact, no story at all. Had she demurred when her fairy godmother offered her a shimmering gown, glass slippers, and a golden coach, her fate would have been to continue as servant and drudge to her demanding stepmother and selfish stepsisters. Years later, tired and worn down by life, she might have thought regretfully about the night she said no because she was too afraid to say yes. So much for happily ever after.

Fortunately for her—and for six-year-old girls everywhere—Cindy was confident and eager to suit up and ride her pimped-out pumpkin to the palace where she became belle of the ball.

But there are thousands of people who face Cindy’s choice daily—though on a smaller and less-Disneyesque scale—and they hold back, out of fear and social anxiety. They feel a paralyzing dread at the thought of entering a social situation—be it attending a party, meeting new people, or speaking out at a meeting. Help is at hand, though, in the form of new research from our friends to the north, showing that kindness alleviates social anxiety.

Social anxiety is more than shyness. According to the Social Anxiety Institute: ”Social anxiety is the fear of interaction with other people that brings on self-consciousness, feelings of being negatively judged and evaluated, and, as a result, leads to avoidance, … feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.” It is a debilitating condition, isolating the sufferer and often preventing them from developing intimacy or close relationships.

A study recently published in the Journal of Motivation and Emotion by researchers Jennifer Trew of Simon Fraser University and Lynn Alden of the University of British Columbia revealed that engaging in acts of kindness reduced levels of social anxiety and social avoidance.

The study divided college students with social anxiety issues into three groups. One was directed to simply keep a diary of their experiences and emotions, another was exposed to different socialization situations, and the third was instructed to perform acts of kindness—three acts of kindness a day for two days a week over the course of four weeks. The kindnesses could be as simple as mowing a neighbor’s lawn, donating to charity, or washing a roommate’s dishes, and were defined as “acts that benefit others or make others happy, typically at some cost to oneself.”

After a month, the group tasked with performing acts of kindness reported lower levels of discomfort and anxiety about social interaction than either of the other two groups.

The researchers concluded that “acts of kindness may help to counter negative social expectations by promoting more positive perceptions (and expectations) of the social environment. This is likely to occur early in the intervention as participants anticipate positive reactions from others in response to their kindness, decreasing the perceived need to avoid negative social outcomes.”

So… we feel better about ourselves and our environment when we extend kindness, and we also expect better reactions and results. Thus, we are less fearful. Makes sense.

I suspect, also, that when we are engaged in kind acts, our attention is on the act or the object of it, and we are less aware of our own worries. While this study didn’t specifically look at people performing kindnesses in the social situations that frighten them, I imagine entering such situations with the intent of finding opportunities to be kind would go far to alleviate the fear. It would divert us from feeling self-conscious and worrying about how we are being judged.

While most of us don’t suffer from debilitating social anxiety, this study of kindness can likely be extrapolated to anyone who experiences discomfort in social situations—whether a cocktail party, public speaking, weddings, funerals, or the dating scene. If we replace worrying with looking for opportunities to be kind, we may very well discover that the event we dreaded was enjoyable and painless. And perhaps we’ll be the proverbial belle of the ball.

As Cinderella might, say, “If the shoe fits….”

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  (Dalai Lama)