The importance of being kind

What is kindness?

Kindness is often described as a series of ethical behaviours that show consideration and goodwill to others. It is also sometimes seen as a virtue, something that is morally good of itself. Although it can be reciprocated, in its purest form it is often given without altruistically any thought for a return. An act of kindness might be showing compassion for someone or loyalty towards them. In many studies into personal relationships, it is how kind an individual considers their partner to be that usually plays a big part in their decision to get together. Some psychological studies seem to indicate that kindness might be an inherent behaviour in people. However, some people believe that is learned in early childhood about the same time that toddlers begin to get to grips with the concept of empathy.

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 How is kindness demonstrated in different religions?

 According to Saint Paul, love is considered to be wrapped up with kindness. He wrote that love is both patient and kind in a famous letter to the early Christian community in Corinth. He considered being kind to be among the nine traits that were the fruit of the spirit. Kindness, gentleness and leniency are all considered to be beloved characteristics in the Islamic tradition, something that is echoed in many of the world's other big religions. Mettā is a Buddhist concept that is often called benevolence in English. Sometimes, it is also referred to as loving-kindness, which is demonstrated by amity with fellow human beings.

Can kindness be mistaken for weakness?

Some people will mistake a kind act as one that shows off a weakness. It seems that showing kindness is sometimes seen as being emotionally weak and soft, while in turn showing rudeness would be considered a sign of strength and toughness. Strength is also often connected with taking care of yourself and showing little empathy to those around you. To take this point of view, however, necessarily misunderstands the true nature of kindness. In fact, kindness often comes from a position of mental fortitude rather than a weakness. It sometimes takes great courage to act in a kind way when you know there is the possibility of it being misinterpreted, wilfully or not.

What can you do when kindness is rejected?

It is not always easy to accept the kindness of others, especially when you are in an emotionally weakened state for some reason. Many people reject kind acts from time to time. Either because they think they are unworthy of them or because it is emotionally easier to push back than to accept. If your kindness rejected, then it is best not to show you have been hurt – even if you have – and not to be judgemental about it as this may make the situation worse. Simply try again to be kind later on, perhaps in a different way that takes into account the earlier rejection.

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How can you show more kindness?

Being more patient with others is an excellent first step. You don't need to buy a fancy gift or do a grand gesture to show you are kind to someone else. A simple note of appreciation or a small act of kindness will usually suffice. Sometimes it's the simplest little thing that takes you no effort that will make someone's day. Think of what could make someone feel better, facilitate their life, or just put a smile on their face. Remember that kind people are not relentlessly good – few can manage that. That said, thinking of others before yourself can become a habit that you won't regret adopting more often.

Can kindness be contagious?

Although being kind can catch on, it is not fair to really speak of it as contagious. Whereas a contagion is passed on from one person to another involuntarily in the main, deciding to be more kind because those around you are means making a choice. True, sometimes choosing to be kinder can be something that is decided upon at a subconscious level, but this does not account for it as a contagious process. Instead, kindness can be seen as something that has some of the characteristics of a contagion because it spreads out from one person to the next. The idea is simple enough – if you choose to be kinder to those around you, then they are more likely to be kinder to those around them and so on. If everyone were to operate on this basis, then – even if people were unkind here or there – the whole world could become a place that is more thoughtful, tolerant and compassionate to live in. Scientifically, some studies have shown that social conformity tends to lead to kinder societies where people actively practice more unselfishness to one another.

What is kindness in psychological terms?

Psychologists have long been interested in what the root cause of kindness is. Although it may be something that is nurtured within human societies, some child psychologists now think there may be some inherited qualities that make it more likely to occur in some people than others. Experiments at Yale University have been conducted on babies to try and assess how kind or otherwise they are. Of course, such work is necessarily subjective to a degree, but this research seems to show some infants are more equipped to act empathetically than others. Given that being kind and having empathy are not exactly the same thing, such psychological investigation is open to debate. Some psychotherapists, notably Adam Phillips, argue that being kind, psychologically speaking, must include an element of realism when dealing with adults rather than children. He has stated that being kind will often alter people in ways that are hard to predict.

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How does kindness affect the brain?

Being kind will often lead to the brain being stimulated. The so-called feel-good factor that you may have felt after being kind in some way will often mean that there is a physiological phenomenon occurring within your brain. Some studies have demonstrated that various neurotransmitters in the brain are stimulated following a kind act or even a kind thought. This seems to be down to the release of certain hormones that goes with being kind. For example, serotonin is known to flow more freely at such times. This is also known as a reward hormone since it comes into play at other times when we feel good about ourselves. Another hormone that is linked to acts of kindness is dopamine which can give us a little rush of pleasure or even euphoria. Other research programmes have focussed on the release of endorphins, something which tends to happen after being kind but how they function in exact relation to kindness is not yet fully understood.

How does kindness affect mental health?

The aforementioned physiological effects that being kind has on the brain are all good for lifting spirits and preventing downturns in the mood. Simply put, people are put in a lesser state of anxiety or depression when the right sort of pleasurable hormones are released in the brain. It is still a bit of a jump to say that being kind will stave off mental health problems, but there is a link that suggests it can help. More widely, being kind will help most people to feel greater confidence in themselves. It is known to raise self-esteem, for example. Equally, most people who go out of their way to be kind will report that they feel a greater sense of optimism. Again, all of these associated feelings of self-worth and empowerment won't necessarily mean that clinical mental health issues will not develop. Still, they are good signs that a healthier state of mind is either being reached or maintained.

When can kindness be abused?

There is an undoubted downside to being kinder. When you are kind, it can feel as though your thoughtfulness or lack of selfishness is being taken advantage of. It is important to take a step back and to work out whether this is truly the case or not. Perhaps your kindness is not being abused, merely misunderstood? Maybe the person you are being kind to has other problems that make it harder for them to accept your generosity? They could need even greater levels of compassion. Nevertheless, it is crucial that you gently point out when you have been kind, and this has either gone unnoticed or unappreciated. Set some boundaries for yourself. You can still be kind without having your generosity of spirit abused. You do not have to be cruel to be kind, as the old adage goes, but some degree of firmness can definitely help.

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What is kindness to yourself?

It is worth remembering that being kind does not always have to mean being entirely altruistic. Perhaps you want to treat yourself as well as those you care about? In a case like this, you might arrange something special for the whole family or your circle of friends. By doing so, you will also be able to enjoy the kindness you are delivering to others. Of course, self-kindness can also be a solo pursuit. Generally speaking, it will mean showing more forgiveness to yourself for minor errors or transgressions. It will also mean having greater compassion for your achievements and not allowing yourself to start thinking that you are not enough or have not got enough done. Being kind, in this way, can be especially important following a relationship breakdown or another loss when you might suffer a blow to your self-esteem.

When is World Kindness Day?

World Kindness Day is an internationally recognised day of celebration for all things related to benevolence and courtesy. It is held on 13th November each year to promote the remarkable effects that being kinder can have on society. The day highlights many of the kind acts that people and organisations have been involved with over the course of the previous year. The idea is to promote kinder behaviour and to spread the word about how global good can come about as a result of it. By seeing the kind acts of other individuals and organizations, the hope is to inspire others to do good deeds in their own capacity.

Can kindness be learned?

In most people's eyes, being kinder is something that can be taught by example. As you have already read, it is a quality that tends to be nurtured in children throughout their development, although there are some indications that some people are more adept at being kind than others. Overall, many people think that the best approach is to teach by example and to show kindness to others so that it may be reflected back – what psychologists call mirroring behaviour. Nevertheless, formal lessons in how to be kind do not feature on the curricula of any major educational system in the world. It is the sort of thing that is seen as something that will be picked up on alongside formal education despite it being such a central concept to most of the world's major religions.

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Kindness Summary

Although kindness is sometimes seen as an emotional state, akin to affection or love, many people view it through the lens of behavioural traits. This probably goes back to ancient times when attempts were first made to define what it is. According to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, being kind means to be helpful to somebody else in need. Crucially, however, the act of being kind must not be in the interests of the person being helpful in any way. Aristotle defined this as not asking for anything in return as well as gaining no advantage from the act of kindness itself. In this sense, being kind is really a form of altruism.

Nonetheless, these older definitions do not always stand up to scrutiny in the modern age. Being kind could include some form of reciprocity, after all. This might be when one person is kind, so the person who has received such benevolence is more likely to be kinder to those around him or her. This way of thinking about being kind may be more in keeping with Eastern concepts of loving-kindness. In this tradition, being kind is a universal gift that spirals out into the world – and beyond – for the good of all. It is hard to reconcile this sort of viewpoint with Aristotelian concepts of altruistic benevolence given that some aspects of being kind will redound back on the person who initiated it. That said, some thinkers and writers have tried to unify these two visions of kindness.

In the digital age, some movements have tried to encourage people to take a kinder approach to one another. This includes some social media campaigns that have sought to deal with some of the toxicity in online public discourse, especially trolling. Hashtags like #bekind have been added to many social media posts in recent years to highlight a more thoughtful and respectful approach.

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