From early childhood we are told to be kind and we learn that behaving kindly is number one in the explicit rules of children’s friendships. Businesses are wising up to the many benefits that a culture of kindness can bring too, and how much better would our world be if we put kindness at the heart of global policy? Kindness to ourselves, our families, our friends, our colleagues, our communities, our countries, our wildlife, our planet – there are so many ways to show kindness and the rewards are legion.
Being kind to ourselves
Let’s begin with kindness to ourselves, which is closely linked to our self-esteem, our core sense of having value. If you are unsure about your self-esteem, think about that little voice in your head, is it a kind soul which gives you positive messages like “you’re ok, you can do this, you have friends”, or perhaps you have an unkind, punitive, shaming internal dialogue that tells you what a failure you are, that no one likes you, that you are ugly, boring, or worthless. Understanding that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviour are all connected, and that changing any one of the three will change the others, helps us appreciate the importance of being kind to ourselves. For example, if we tell ourselves that we are likeable and that others enjoy our company, we are more likely to seek out friends and socialise which will give us a shot of the mood boosting hormones, oxytocin and serotonin. When we have healthy self-esteem, we look after ourselves because we believe we are worth it – self-care is self-esteem in action, and it is often the first thing to go by the wayside when someone becomes mentally unwell.
Being kind to ourselves means challenging those unhelpful (and largely untrue) thought patterns that trap us in negativity and trash our self-esteem, and replacing them with more supportive, realistic messages. It means learning to forgive our past mistakes and congratulate ourselves when we do well. It means nurturing our physical health by eating well, prioritising sleep, taking regular exercise, getting outdoors, and doing the things which spark joy and calm. It means discovering our core values because when the things we do and the way we behave match our values, we develop intrinsic motivation (doing things because they feel good rather than for any external reward), a sense of meaning, and greater self-worth.
Being kind to others
Being kind to others isn’t listed as one of the Marvel character superpowers, and yet it should be because kindness builds community, collaboration, cooperation, creativity, connectedness, critical thinking, empathy, social skills and initiative. Kindness lets other people know they matter; it shapes how others perceive us and thereby how we perceive ourselves. Studies have shown that giving genuine complements can make us happier than receiving them. Spending money to get a meaningful gift, donating to charity, or volunteering our time, all require us to consider and invest in things external to ourselves which decreases egotism and increases feelings of self-worth.
Why kindness matters
Kindness matters – it can improve the quality of our lives and of everyone around us, but we always need to be mindful that our act of kindness is done in the best interest of the other person and is not an act of rescue. When I do your work for you rather than teaching you how to do it yourself, when I rush into school with a piece of forgotten kit, when I make excuses for your behaviour, when I do things for you that you could easily do for yourself, and when I fail to stick to my boundaries, I am not helping you, I am rescuing you, the subliminal message is “I don’t think you can do this for yourself so I am going to do it for you”. When I rescue, I put myself in a one up position in comparison to you, and I create an imbalance in our relationship. The other alternative is that my act of kindness is fuelled by a need in me to be liked, loved, and appreciated – my low self-esteem is driving my behaviour and I have put myself in a one down position in the relationship which again creates an imbalance.
Kindness across genders
It is also interesting to consider kindness across the genders – often girls are more strongly expected, and therefore more socially conditioned, to exhibit prosocial behaviours such as kindness, than boys. If we want young people to enjoy the happy, healthy relationships they deserve, we need to work hard to counter the egocentric attitudes and messages many encounter on social media and pornography, instead we need to encourage empathy and kindness.
Kindness in action
Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” Imagine what could happen if we all did one kind thing, for one other person, every single day, and then encouraged them to pay it forward by doing something kind for someone else.
Some ideas to get you going:
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