It’s been heart-warming to hear about the kindness shown in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks on the UK – they restore our faith in humanity and some welcome relief from the horror of recent events. The stories have shone in stark contrast with those hellbent on destruction, restoring the phrase ‘humankind’. By being broadcast on the news, I’m sure they’ll influence us all, as kindness breeds kindness – they’ve certainly made me think about how I can do more.
A good example of how positive vibes can be contagious was the atmosphere created by the volunteers at the London Olympics in 2012. Even away from the sites of the Games – those who wore their uniforms on the Tube were met with smiles and nods of acknowledgement from passers-by. London felt united, proud and excited. It’s interesting that five years later, the Green Party are proposing a shortened-week to enable people to lead “happier and more fulfilled lives”. It’s also been suggested that if people have more time, they may use it to do more volunteering – whilst the principles behind Cameron’s “Big Society” were all very well, it’s tricky if you don’t have enough hours in the day.
The gains in helping others do however work in both directions – in fact, the positive effect of helping others is so marked that it’s prompted some psychologists to question whether pure altruism exists at all.
But such effects aren’t limited to volunteering – Sonja Lyubomirsky’s found that those who commit to doing ‘five acts of kindness’ are happier, echoing other research which linked it to both physical and mental health. Her instructions are pretty simple:
“One day each week, you are to perform five acts of kindness. The acts do not need to be for the same person, the person may or may not be aware of the act… Do not perform any acts that may place yourself or others in danger.”
After reading this, the single ‘act of kindness’ that I included in my kids’ Christmas Challenges seems a bit pathetic. What it means to be kind is probably quite intangible for them, so maybe it’d be better if we got them to think about what they can do on a regular basis – like some organisations are trying to get adults to do.
A lovely example of daily acts of kindness are recorded in the artist Michael Landy’s ‘Acts of Kindness’ project, which collated real stories from the public to celebrate ways in which people show each other compassion on the Tube. It’d be nice to think that bored commuters may have been prompted to act after reading about the kindness of others. Perhaps after recent events, more of us will feel similarly motivated…?
I appreciate that some may feel that kindness should be spontaneous and by turning it into a project, it loses its charm (and perhaps even the sentiment). But putting a bit of conscious effort in is just a well-honed approach for establishing new habits – they’ll become unconscious soon enough. Whilst I’m sure none of us would say we are unkind, in the hustle and bustle of daily life, if you are anything like me, your actions may fall short of your aspirations.
An example of this was in local supermarket a few years ago. I was at the till with my kids in tow, trying to pack the food that I’d just bought (whilst no doubt being late for something and probably annoyed at something else). There was an elderly man behind me who was talking to the checkout girl, explaining that the food he was buying was a treat for his birthday dinner. From the items on the conveyor belt, it looked as though he was on his own, so I felt the urge to buy his shopping as a present – but didn’t.
I was struck by a classic case of negative politeness, common amongst Brits who respectfully ignore the business of others. I didn’t do anything for fear of getting it wrong: I may have misinterpreted the situation, be viewed as nosy for over-hearing, or potentially have embarrassed him. Although I went for the low-risk option of ‘do nothing’, it’s bothered me since – so I’ve resolved to throw caution to the wind if I’m in a similar situation again.
On the flip-side, I remember it making my day when I was a recipient of a free coffee from Pret a Manger. Despite it later emerging as a viral marketing plan (employees have the discretion to give a certain number away), it doesn’t make me feel differently about it. In the hustle and bustle of a morning commute, a stranger doing something nice for me cheered me up no end. In the States, there’s even a movement to ‘pay it forward’, where you pay for the next person’s coffee in addition to your own (replicated in the UK with our very own Pay it Forward Day).
Thinking about all this has inspired me to make some kindness commitments myself – but if charity starts at home, I better start by making my husband a cup of tea…