Small gestures like a smile or kind word can mean everything—especially at that moment when we really need them.
Author Donna Cameron has always been inspired by kind people, and how special they make her feel. So in 2015, she decided to give back by devoting an entire year toward expressing kindness. It was an experiment she tried in the past, but one that died quickly once life got busy or people treated her rudely.
But Cameron was determined. To keep her resolve, she decided to blog about her experience and asked a few friends to follow it.
“I thought, ‘if I say I’m going to blog about it for a year and then quit in March, that’s going to be a pretty visible failure,’” she said.
Three and a half years later, Cameron says that kindness has become her default setting. She shares her insights in a book to be released this fall—“A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You.”
Before her experiment, Cameron believed she was already a generally kind person. But as she made a more conscious effort, she realized how often she fell short. Instead of being kind, she was merely being nice.
“To me, kindness can really be summed up in two words: extend yourself,” she said. “I don’t think niceness requires that we extend ourselves. It just requires that we be civil.”
Nice is being polite at a superficial level. It means something, but not much. We can be nice, yet still be impatient and judgmental. Our words may sound kind, but our attitude is distant. We remain in our own little bubble.
Kindness is more engaged. It requires that we lower our guard, give people the benefit of the doubt, and try to make a real connection.
Kindness means giving something of ourselves. From big gifts, like volunteering and philanthropy, to small ones, like allowing a fellow driver to merge onto the expressway, the qualifying factor is thoughtfulness.
Kindness doesn’t just make other people feel good, it also has a positive impact on our own mood and health. According to kindness expert David R. Hamilton PhD., research finds that practicing kindness makes us happier, is good for our heart, slows aging, and improves relationships.
Kindness has also been shown to reduce chronic pain, increase happiness and longevity, and reduce depression. It has even been shown to alleviate social anxiety. Those who shift their focus from worrying about what others think, to concentrate on how to make someone else feel at ease, can turn an awkward social interaction into something fulfilling.
Kindness is like a medicine with only positive side effects. Research shows that health care practitioners with a kind and empathic disposition have a measurably beneficial impact on their patients’ well-being and recovery.
Yet, despite all the benefits of kindness, fear often holds us back. Dropping our defenses to extend a touch of humanity leaves us vulnerable to rejection, ridicule, and what others may perceive as weakness. But Cameron believes kindness is actually a strength.
“I really see it as something of a superpower,” she said. “Just because we’re kind doesn’t mean we’re pushovers and it doesn’t mean we’re stupid. We can be just as strong as an unkind person, but we can do it in a kind way.”
Culture of Kindness
Another positive aspect of kindness is that it’s contagious. If a kind act is bestowed on us, or if we see one expressed to another, research shows that we’re encouraged to copy this type of behavior.
Unfortunately, rudeness is found to be contagious too. We’re products of our environment, and as the standard of public discourse rises or falls around us, we’re likely to mimic what we see.
There’s no study to prove a widespread drop in kindness, but some environmental indicators definitely seem to demonstrate one. Particularly in the media, which portray endless examples of conflict, divisiveness, insults, and revenge. The overall picture suggests a heartless world where no one can get along.
However, our media lens may be distorting how we really treat each other. Wendi Gilbert is determined to shift the focus. She is the founder of Kindness Evolution, a collective of 70 organizations dedicated to acts of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. Gilbert says, just knowing that there are people out there devoted to doing good can change our perspective.
“The social media reach of those 70 organizations is 24 million,” she said. “You start to get a sense that there is a lot happening out there and a lot is possible if we all come together.”
Gilbert’s website contains a database on the science of kindness and other evidence exploring the power of selfless gestures. She believes cultivating such awareness can help us feel inspired rather than cynical.
“In psychology, neuroscience and even economics, research reveals that as a species our default mode is not one of self-centeredness,” Gilbert said. “We are wired to connect, and when we do our physiology improves for the better.”
Kindness may be our true nature, but some of the tension we feel in the world today is hard to deny. However, a kind attitude may be a big part of the solution. According to Dr. Roselyn Smith, a psychologist, and hypnotherapist in Miami, Florida, if people were as focused on compassion and respect as they were on broadcasting their opinion and pointing out the flaws of their enemies, we would probably be able to work out a lot of our differences.
“So many disputes, personal and global, are caused by people reacting to their own interpretations of another’s intentions, rather than calmly and openly trying to understand where the other is really coming from and what their true intentions are,” Smith said.
Sometimes kindness is easy. It flows out of us spontaneously in an expression of joy. But often it’s a challenge. Particularly, when someone is rude or disrespectful to us, it’s always tempting to fire back with a matching level of venom.
Cameron’s tip for cultivating kindness in tough situations: learn to pause. Take a breath, think about what you want to happen, and choose a response that can best accomplish it.
“That changes everything,” Cameron said. “But succumbing to the same behaviors that we’re trying to stop or change, I really think just strengthens them.”
Kindness means viewing a situation from a high minded perspective. If our gesture gets through, it can make others elevate their perspective too.
According to New York City-based therapist and interfaith minister Rev. Sheri Heller, when we transcend our own defenses and see the hurt and fear that inhibits the kindness in others, we leave a mark, even if it’s not obvious at the moment. She recalls that, even during her darkest days, the compassion people gave her eventually filtered through.
“Unbeknownst to me at the time, those simple gestures gave me hope and sustained me,” Heller said.
Later, Heller discovered that helping others gave her even more strength to overcome her own demons. “As long as I could extend kindness and love, I knew I was not so broken that I couldn’t heal,” she said. “It connected me to my humanity.”
Striving to be as kind as possible in every situation is a noble goal, but we can run the risk of giving too much. It should feel good to be kind. So when it leaves us feeling drained rather than sustained, something is out of balance.
For example, people who exploit your good nature with no intention of giving back, or those who just want to argue with no desire for a rational discussion are like black holes for kindness. They are unable or unwilling to appreciate selfless gestures.
We can try extending kindness to these individuals in the hopes of breaking through, but at some point, we have to move on. Both Cameron and Heller say that, in order to find the right balance, we need to practice self-kindness.
“Unless we can be kind to ourselves, it’s going to be really hard to be kind to others and really do it on a sustained basis,” Cameron said.
Heller says that if we don’t exercise self-respect, we’re not extending ourselves from a place of integrity and honesty. “Our primary responsibility is to our self. And from that place we can give with genuine intention,” she said.
Kindness implies that we respect other people’s boundaries too. Even if you offer a hug or a backrub with the best of intentions, your gesture may make the target of your kindness even more uncomfortable.
“If your generosity is unsolicited, you need to consider where that intention is coming from. It may not be kindness. It may be a gesture that’s self-serving, or an intent to inflate one’s ego by seeming altruistic,” Heller said.
Cameron says a huge part of kindness is just paying attention. Consider the world around you, your place within it, and how you can make things just a little bit better.
“Don’t try to be Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama and say, ‘from this point on, I’m going to be the kindest person, and I’m never going to get impatient,”’ Cameron said.
“Start small. Do what feels comfortable, and keep adding to it. Pretty soon, it becomes the default setting.”