The Keys to Kindness

The Keys to Kindness

“If you want others to be happy, practise compassion. If you want to be happy, practise compassion” The Dalai Lama

I’m a devotee of kindness. It is one of the twelve happiness habits I write about in The Little Book of Happiness and I see it as the superlative practice that can make a difference in someone’s life and add to the tonnage of happiness on the planet. It is, in essence, about being nice to others and doing good deeds without expectation of personal gain. Add a splash of empathy, compassion, generosity, care, altruism and love and you have some of the many faces of kindness. In positive psychology kindness is considered a strength, one of the top five in existence and belongs to the virtue of humanity. This is a group of interpersonal strengths which involve tending to others and also includes social intelligence and love.

In the wake of the pandemic, BBC Radio 4 and the University of Sussex embarked on the largest global survey ever undertaken into attitudes to kindness. The results of The Kindness Test are discussed in Claudia Hammond’s latest book The Keys to Kindness, which she’ll be discussing with me at the Bath Festival. One of Claudia’s strengths is to take the science and communicate it in a digestible form and here she has kindly synthesized the findings into seven keys.

Key no1: There is more kindness in the world that you might think. This is very gratifying to read in spite of the daily headlines of cruelty. From mini-Samaritans to altruistic elders kindness is present across the lifespan. We start out quite kind and as our brains mature and our ability to regulate emotions grows, we can become even kinder. Kindness is an important trait in humanity and we are kinder than we might give ourselves credit for.

Key no2: Being kind makes you feel good. There is a strong link between kindness and wellbeing. The recipient feels valued and cared for, their faith in humanity is strengthened and there’s the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from performing an act of kindness. Prof Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California describes it as ‘the milk of happiness’.  What’s more, acts of kindness open the door to eudaimonic wellbeing, a sense of fulfilment that comes from living a life that serves others in some way. Good for you and for the greater good.

Key no 3: Don’t get too hung up on motives. Does it matter if the kindness benefits you in some way as well as the other person? Does it have to be completely selfless or is a bit of self-interest allowed? Well, it turns out the reward system of the brain is activated regardless of whether the act is purely altruistic or serves our own needs as well as another’s.  However kindness can backfire sometimes when offers of help leave people feeling indebted and obliged. And like all strengths, when kindness is overdone, it can have negative consequences like feeling used.

Key no 4: Kind people can be winners. What a relief! Kind people are often characterised as gullible softies and kindness as out-of-place in the world of work. It is unfortunate that the prevailing image of business success comes from outdated shows like The Apprentice, where you have to be mean to make it. However, when leaders show kindness and support their employees, they are rewarded with workers who want to do their best for their bosses and work hard to repay the kindness. This is part of the more ethical leadership that’s emerging in contrast to the ‘command and control’ bosses of the past. The former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern describes her most significant strength on the path to premiership as… kindness.

Key no 5: Kindness comes from seeing other people’s point of view. Empathy, one of the faces of kindness, comes from being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and thinking from another’s perspective can lead to a kind act.  Changing perspective is also one of the major techniques of resilience – seeing things from a different angle can help you be kinder to yourself as well as others. The good news is that empathy can be developed. Practice and adopting a growth mindset helps.

Key no 6: Anyone can be a hero. You’d expect to find ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ amongst the characteristics of a hero, but other personality traits include ‘caring’, ‘helpful’ and ‘compassionate’, terms that all appear in the Kindness Test’s top five words given to explain what kindness means to people. Just as kindness is common so is heroism. There is a shared humanity. In the London tube bombings of July 2005, people didn’t trample each other in their attempt to save themselves. Instead, they showed great concern for others and helped them out.

Key no 7: Remember to be kind to yourself. So many find it hard to treat themselves with the same kindness that they would offer to others. For anyone experiencing depression, a lack of self-kindness can compound their suffering. The Kindness Test shows that those people who are kind to themselves have higher wellbeing and satisfaction in life. There is an oxygen mask principle. Self-compassion, being kind to yourself, can put you in a position where you have the energy to treat other people kindly.

Claudia Hammond will be discussing her book The Keys to Kindness in conversation with Miriam Akhtar at the Bath Festival on Sunday 21 May.

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