Kindness is becoming rare and sometimes if feels as though we live in a very hostile world. We are more connected than ever these days with social media and the 24 hour news cycle, so it is easy to become saturated with the conflict, politics, poverty and discord of the world around us. For people who work in high needs care industries; doctors, nurses, emergency service personnel, social workers, criminal lawyers; or ordinary people who care for elderly or ill family members, life can become a cycle of stress and trauma and they can begin to suffer from compassion fatigue.
Whether it is from too much exposure to ‘bad news’ or too much exposure to the suffering of people around us, we can start to show physical, mental and emotional symptoms. There’s no denying that this type of negativity is bad for our health.
However, studies have shown that kindness and generosity are not only great for our health, they’re contagious and self perpetuating.
The more people are good to one another, the more both the givers and the receivers want to do it. Furthermore, altruism and empathy have been found in species other than humans. Biological altruism, whether conscious or not, is evident in animals and insects alike, especially those that have very well organised systems, like ants, for example.
So how do we strike a balance between giving and not giving too much? How do we live our lives in a way that enhances our humanity and our altruistic nature, without letting it destroy us?
Juliana Breines, Ph.D from the Greater Good Science Center says that there are several ways to strike that balance. We must strive to feel connected and supported with one another thereby achieving ‘attachment security’. We can also wonder at the world and universe around us: revel in nature, indulge in our humanness and what it can achieve. Take ‘awe walks’ out in nature or sit in silence in a magnificent building, walk over a long bridge, lie in a meadow and stare at the clouds.
Similarly, kindness meditation and practicing mindfulness can help us to stay in the present moment and regulate our breathing and blood pressure. We must strive to turn benevolence into a habit by participating in random acts of kindness regularly and whenever possible.
We also need to learn when it is OK to say no and when it is crucial that we are kind to ourselves first as forced kindness is abrasive and counter productive. Establishing ways to acknowledge our shared identity by, for example, putting a face to human suffering; educating ourselves about what other people experience and understanding the reality of those less fortunate will maintain our connectedness and keep us in touch with the reality of our privilege. Teaching kindness to children is another way that we can maximize mutual empathy from an early age.
Kindness doesn’t have to be exhausting or a chore. Kindness as a concept is a way to bring generosity and positivity to others as well as ourselves.
Here are 6 ways to bring more kindness into your life:
Smile as much as you can muster. Not just at others, but also at yourself. Look in the mirror and smile. Be conscious of your facial expression regularly. Sometimes we are just concentrating or thinking and we don’t realize that we are scowling. Engage in things that make you laugh; genuinely laugh. There is nothing more satisfying than laughing hysterically at something until there are tears and everybody knows that laughter is contagious.
When you are out and about, make contact with people by projecting a happy disposition. You don’t have to look deranged to appear happy. Just make the effort and before you know it, it will become a habit. Try this experiment in the presence of children. If you smile at them, they almost always smile back. Making a concerted effort to smile will lead to feelings of contentment, which in turn makes us smile more and will attract kindness.
Generosity is underrated. Give your stuff away. We all have so much junk and everything has become so disposable. Don’t try to sell old furniture or electronic devices. You’re not going to recoup much of what you spent anyway because things depreciate. Just give it away. Clothes, kitchen and electrical appliances, children’s toys: give them away for free. There are plenty of classifieds that you can access to do this. You can also give them to a number of charities who will pass them on to someone in need. Bigger things like white goods and cars can be easily passed around to family, friends and neighbors. When it’s time to replace something and you can afford to buy the new item, count your losses and give the old one away.
Also, donate to charity. Make it an annual commitment. Choose a charity or two that you feel passionately about and give them a cash donation every year. It’s tax deductible and if you do this, give yourself permission to say no to any other charities you come across that request donations.
You can’t give to every single one (by all means if you can, then do so!), but having one or two charities or not for profit organisations that you adopt – ones that you learn thoroughly about what they do and who they help, perhaps even volunteer for, will contribute to those feelings of connection that enhance our propensity to give.
Feel good about receiving. When someone offers help, take it. When other people show concern for you and offer advice, take notice. Giving yourself permission to receive openly has benefits that we don’t often acknowledge. Being a good receiver is nurturing for you and beneficial to the giver. People feel good when they are giving, just as you want to feel good when you give, so by receiving you are promoting the cycle of kindness. We often associate receiving with guilt. We don’t feel worthy or want to immediately give in return to even the score. Don’t feel obliged to do that. Simply receive without needing to do anything in return, just say thank you. Feelings of appreciation and gratitude are ways to experience kindness that we don’t often consider.
Use your words. Don’t be afraid of confrontation or judgement. Sometimes we have valuable information that we should share and even if it isn’t received well initially, that information may help someone as an after thought. Use your intuition and share your experiences. The more we talk to people about ourselves the more we form valuable attachments with other humans. Talking to one another is an opportunity to bond and mimic emotion, which is the core ingredient for empathy.
Striking up a conversation isn’t difficult; just being friendly is all that is required. Saying hello can become very hollow. Make your greetings genuine; really ask someone how their day is going and mean it, even if you’re both in a hurry. You don’t have to tell strangers your life story, but making eye contact, projecting affection and making a true human connection with people is invaluable. Especially if you don’t feel like it. The effort is its own reward.
As much as you talk, be quiet and listen. When people open up to you or have something to say, don’t just stay quiet in wait for your turn to speak. That is not listening. Actually hear what they have to say and respond accordingly. Your turn to speak will come if the conversation is balanced and genuine and if it doesn’t maybe what you think you had to say wasn’t that important this time around after all.
When you truly listen to people you fill your being with information to last you a life time. You never know when that wisdom will come in handy. Listening also teaches us to read between the lines. When we honestly listen to someone, we don’t just hear their words; we read their body language and their facial expressions. We learn to understand that which is unspoken and that is truly listening and connecting.
Showing real affection and paying attention to people you come into contact with is something we often do only superficially. We become so absorbed in our own needs that we fail to really care about others. Often it is a genuine act of self preservation, especially if we are suffering from the aforementioned compassion fatigue. However, if we realize that caring for others is really caring for ourselves and if we understand that we are all connected, we can bring more kindness into our lives.
Stay abreast of what is going on in the world; get educated and informed. Choose wisely when it comes to sources of information and comprehend the reality of what people around the world are experiencing. Understand what your privileges are and what your obligations to other living beings and the planet ought to be. Kindness is something we can afford to give across continents, to other species and to the environment.
Kindness should become a way of life. It doesn’t mean denying our negative emotions or letting people take advantage of us. It means always having the intention to contribute something positive; sometimes even in the face of adversity. With practice, the act of kindness becomes a habit and we get stronger in the process; it teaches us to discern when it is appropriate to be selfless and when it is necessary to be selfish. If the intention to be altruistic and help others is a genuine one, then the outcome will always be constructive.
Featured photo credit: chattanongzen via shutterstock.com