If there was one magical cure for many of the woes of the world, it might be the power of kindness. When the epidemic of stress, anxiety, and depression threatens to overload the medical system and impede progress toward a greater sense of common humanity, and when the world can seem more divided than united, giving and receiving kindness is a way to connect at a deeper level. Kindness is a means of acknowledging that the needs of others are worthy of attention and that actions on their behalf are meaningful.
What Is Kindness?
According to positive psychology (study of what makes communities thrive) pioneers Martin Seligman and David Petersen in their book Character Strengths and Virtues, kindness refers to “doing favors and good deeds for others; helping them; taking care of them.” Kindness can be broken into two main categories:
- Being kind
- Receiving kindness from others
Kindness is a chance to practice one of the Seven Spiritual Laws of Success—the Law of Giving and Receiving. Humans are social creatures who historically needed connection to have survived, and according to psychology professor Dacher Keltner, author of Born to Be Good, humans needed kindness to help peacefully overcome conflicts and create cohesion between disparate groups.
These social instincts can seem like reflexes, actions outside your control (like when you put your arm up to stop your passenger from flying forward when you brake suddenly) and yet kindness can be both instinctual and learned. Kindness helps you to see how you are similar rather than how you are different.
Young children tend to help each other. Their desire to help seems innate. They do it without expectations of praise or reward. The act itself has a built-in reward—the pleasure of feeling useful. As they grow, this natural kindness is shaped by a culture that sometimes discourages collaboration by rewarding competition.
Children who engage in acts of kindness tend to be more well connected, have higher levels of peer acceptance, and are less likely to bully others. In adults, kindness is often one of the traits we seek in a partner. One study showed that people who were kind were seen as more attractive physically, too! Personality traits are directly tied to your perception of how physically attractive someone is. Kindness, then, should be encouraged. But how?
You can encourage kindness through:
- Modeling acts of kindness
- Giving responsibilities and opportunities
- Inspiring positive actions toward others
- Teaching empathy and compassion
Notice the list does not include rewards. Rewarding kind behavior makes it less likely that a child will continue being helpful. Perhaps that speaks to the better angels of nature. People are good for goodness’s sake, not for applause.
How to Show Kindness
The great thing about kindness is that you have a free lifetime unlimited supply. The more you give, the more you have. Here are a few ways to get you started:
- Hold a door for someone
- Pick up litter
- Let someone into your lane while driving
- Pay for the order behind you in the drive-thru
- Take a neighbor’s garbage bins to and from the curb
- Compliment a friend, co-worker, or family member
- Clean up after yourself
- Send a text to a loved one
- Learn your partner’s “love language,”, and then use it
- Notice someone who seems lonely and invite them along with you
- Let someone who wants to help you, help
- Don’t offer advice unless asked
- Share silence with someone
- Engage in random acts of kindness
- Engage in kind acts that are not random at all
If you are like most people, you probably find it easier to be kind than to be on the receiving act of a kind act. When someone compliments you, do you reply, “it was nothing” or “no problem”? Many people have adopted this learned behavior as a way of being humble, but what this actually does is constrict the flow of the energy of giving and receiving. If someone gives you a compliment, not receiving it stops its power for both the giver and the receiver.
Sometimes receiving kindness and compassion can feel threatening, as though the one being kind is somehow superior. If you notice you have trouble receiving gifts, compliments, or acts of generosity and love, spend some time reflecting on why. Who taught you to behave this way? Is it serving you and those around you?
What Gets in the Way of Kindness?
You may encounter many stumbling blocks on the path of showing kindness to others. For example:
- External rewards
- Self-interest (you can’t give to get)
- Risk to self or others (it requires bravery to risk being rebuffed)
- Lack of confidence
- Not being aware of others; too busy and distracted
- Negative emotions
Any one of these complications may stop you (even temporarily) from receiving or showing kindness. Being aware of your circumstances is the first way to counteract these (hopefully temporary) stops on your kindness journey.
How to Improve and Mental Health
The effects of kindness and mental health care are connected. Mental health happens on a continuum that ranges from mental illness and languishing to mental wellness and flourishing. No matter where you sit on that continuum, kindness and compassion have the ability to lift you toward flourishing—a state that is commonly described as one where you feel happy, engaged, energized, and satisfied with life. This might be why volunteering and philanthropy feel so good. Being kind helps you to feel good and boosts your mood.
The Ripple Effect
Kindness begins with you. Then it involves another which turns the “me” to “we.” Soon the "we’s" affect the community. Consider listening to the WBUR podcast called Kind World. Each episode shares a story that reminds listeners how a simple act of kindness changes the lives of both the individual being kind and the recipient. The ripple here also includes the listeners who are influenced simply by hearing stories of kindness.
When kindness is authentically given and received it lifts the well-being and mood of everyone involved. There’s no downside or side effect of positive feelings. Kindness is good.
If you have a story of how a kind act made a difference in your life, please share it in the comments below. You never know how your story might impact the life of another.
Kind hearts are the gardens. Kind thoughts are the roots. Kind words are the blossoms. Kind deeds are the fruits. —Kirpal Singh, spiritual master
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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