Do you know someone that is incredibly kind?
Maybe it's a friend, parent, relative, or acquaintance. It's the kind of person always willing to lend a helping hand, or that so rarely responds with any animosity.
Amid such trying, stressful, and sometimes dark times, kindness can sometimes seem like a far fetched idea. For some of us, kindness does not come as easy, and it seems like a personality trait destined for someone else.
On the contrary, we can ALL learn to be kind. Kindness is not just a trait you either have or lack; it's a skill and a mindset we can all work to cultivate.
There has never been a more crucial time to learn or teach kindness than now.
Kindness is typically something we describe but not necessarily define. According to the American Psychological Association, kindness is a "benevolent and helpful action intentionally directed toward another person." True, pure kindness is not about personal gain; instead, it is propelled by wanting to help others.
Jamil Zaki, a 39-year old Stanford University psychology professor, dedicated his life work to kindness and empathy. He studies empathy as part of Stanford's Social Neuroscience Lab. Zaki is a dedicated warrior for civility, working diligently to build a "kindness revolution." He's the author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, and he says that research¹ has found that Americans in 2009 were less empathetic than 75% of Americans only 30 years prior.
Researcher Sara H. Konrath of the University of Ann Arbor published her study² in Personality and Social Psychology Review; she found that college students self-reported far less empathy than in the 80s, with a sharp decline in the last ten years. Coinciding with the dip in empathy was an increase in narcissism that Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, found³.
Empathy and kindness are on the decline - so what? As you might imagine, there are many benefits of kindness, many ways that kindness can help society.
One study⁴ found that happy people become happier by being kind. When participants counted their acts of kindness for one week, their perception of their happiness rose. Another study⁵ by Lee Rowland and Oliver Scott Cury found that participants who performed acts of kindness for seven days felt happier. Simply put, being kind makes us happier. The acts of kindness and the reflection of our kindness boosts happiness and wellbeing.
Kindness also helps out society. Acts of kindness are "prosocial", meaning they work to better society. One author's manuscript⁶ found that prosocial behavior (kindness) reduces the physical symptoms of stress. "Results showed that on a given day, prosocial behavior moderated the effects of stress on positive affect, negative affect, and overall mental health." As we know, society as a whole is facing difficult, unprecedented times. Kindness can go a long way to reducing the impact of stress and helping our mental functioning.
Furthermore, kindness has a contagious element. It spreads positivity throughout the world, compounding its beneficial effects. Several different research studies have shown that we "pay it forward"⁷ when we receive an act of kindness. In other words, when someone does something kind for us, we are more likely to do something kind for someone else.
One study⁸ demonstrates this notion incredibly well. Researchers wanted to put the "pay it forward" model to the test in a high-stress, high-stakes environment. They secretly studied acts of kindness at Coca Cola's Madrid location. Without the others knowing, they assigned 19 workers to give acts of kindness to certain coworkers each week. After one month, the experimenters saw a boost in prosocial behaviors in the office. The people who received acts of kindness demonstrated 10x more acts of kindness than workers who did not receive acts of kindness. Those who received kindness felt independent at work, while the control group fell in autonomy. Essentially, acts of kindness created a buffer for the receivers, which results in handling more stressful situations at work. The receivers paid forward acts of kindness, demonstrating how positively contagious kindness is.
Kindness is so powerful, yet it's gone down in the last three decades.
How can kindness decline?
While Zaki says, while there's a genetic component to kindness, "experiences, choices, habits, and practices" will also impact how empathetic we become. Instead of being "hard-wired" (100% genetic and unchangeable), kindness and empathy are "soft-wired." That's great. It means that just as we can unlearn kindness, we can also rewire our minds to become more empathetic. Empathy is a "mental muscle" that we can slowly but surely work to strengthen.
In fact, Zaki has his class at Stanford to help teach people how to cultivate kindness. PSYCH 15N, or Becoming Kinder, is all about teaching students to explore empathy and kindness from scientific angles. The class also involves "kindness challenges" that push students past their comfort zones and into kindness that they may not have known they were capable of. After the challenges, students reflect on what went well, what did not go well, and what surprised them. Zaki found that the most powerful challenges went against the students' previous assumptions. By the end of the course, students reflect on their changes. They worked to become kinder and more understanding to not only others but to themselves as well.
Can kindness be taught?
Clearly, the work of Zaki and many others show that it can. But, knowing you can learn something and doing it are quite different. Learning kindness is not easy, and for some of us, it may be more challenging than others.
Here are some ways to cultivate kindness:
On his website, War for Kindness, Zaki has kindness challenges available like the ones he uses in his class. He refers to these challenges as an "empathy gym," intended to foster empathy and kindness based on his expertise and research. You can find all of the details on his website, but the basic overview of his kindness challenges includes:
Kindness is an essential prosocial behavior that helps the giver, receiver, and society as a whole, but we have been showing less empathy and kindness over the years. All hope is not lost, as kindness CAN be learned and taught.
While the journey is not always easy, we can all take steps to help create a better world. In the darkest of times, we must run toward and embrace kindness. Using the information above can be your first step toward cultivating a kinder, happier world.
Being kind can also start with one's self. By developing our self-compassion, we tend to look the world at a more gentler gaze. Read 10 Powerful Ways to Be Kinder to Yourself in 2021 and start learning how to love yourself.
(1) Zaki, J (January 2011) What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic
(2) Konrath, S (December 2019) Speaking of Psychology: The Decline of Empathy and the Rise of Narcissism
(3) Twenge, JM; Konrath, S; Foster, JD; Campbell, WK; Bushman, BJ (2008) Further evidence of an increase in narcissism among college students
(4) Otake, K; Shimai, S; Tanaka-Matsumi, J; Otsui, K; Fredrickson, BL (September 2006) Happy people become happier through kindness: A counting kindnesses intervention
(5) Rowland, L; Curry, OS (May 2019) A range of kindness activities boost happiness
(6) Raposa, EB; Laws HB; Ansell, EB (July 2016) Prosocial Behavior Mitigates the Negative Effects of Stress in Everyday Life
(7) DeSteno, D; Bartlett, MY; Baumann, J; Williams, LA; Dickens, L (April 2010) Gratitude as moral sentiment: emotion-guided cooperation in economic exchange
(8) Chancellor, J; Margolis, S; Jacobs Bao, K; Lyubomirsky, S. (2018) Everyday prosociality in the workplace: The reinforcing benefits of giving, getting, and glimpsing
(9) Pavey, L; Greitemeyer, T; Sparks, P (April 2011) Highlighting relatedness promotes prosocial motives and behavior
(10) Mikulincer, M; Shaver, PR; Gillath, O; Nitzberg, RA (November 2005). Attachment, caregiving, and altruism: boosting attachment security increases compassion and helping
(11) Weng, HY; Fox, AS; Shackman, AJ, et al. (May 2013) Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering