November 13 (next Tuesday) is the day humankind has set aside to remember the importance of kindness and to make an extra effort to treat one another with gentleness and understanding. World Kindness Day was established in Tokyo in 1998 by representatives of kindness organizations from around the world and is currently observed in 28 nations. This year, when incivility and even hostility are so prevalent in our own country and elsewhere, doing what we can to reestablish kindness as a social norm is especially important.
Kindness is Contagious
How we treat other people has a profound effect on everyone involved. Research shows that when someone extends kindness to us, we are more likely to extend it to others. Even witnessing an act of kindness between two other people makes it more likely that we will be kinder in our subsequent interactions with others. Sadly, incivility and cruelty are also socially transmitted, and how we treat one another has serious consequences, for good or for ill.
There are dozens of opportunities each day in which we can choose to extend kindness to others – smiling or saying “good morning” to strangers we pass in the street, reaching out to a friend we know has been struggling with something difficult, listening carefully in conversations and then responding thoughtfully, choosing to let go of resentment (rather than nursing a grudge), responding to another’s hurtful behavior by pausing and trying to understand what might be going on for him or her (rather than passing judgment or reacting with a harsh or hurtful remark), or simply remembering to ask rather than demand and to say “please” and “thank you.”
Kindness in Later Life
A number of late-life trends enhance our capacity for extending kindness and understanding. For example, long years tend to broaden our perspective, enabling us to see situations from many points of view, rather than insisting that our perception of a situation is right and others are wrong. And as we age, the amygdale – the seat of the fight-or-flight response – begins to mellow. We become less reactive (especially to negative stimuli) and are more likely, under stress, to respond with acceptance, understanding, or humor, rather than with blame or aggression (emotional mastery).
With age we typically grow more comfortable in our own skin, more a accepting of ourselves including our foibles, and thus more empathic and tolerant toward others. Research suggests that empathy and compassion are especially high in older women who have a history of finding a way through adversity in their own life.
With age, we also tend to become less concerned with ourselves and our personal agenda and more aware of the interconnectedness and preciousness of all life. A growing sense of kinship with other people and species (gerotranscendence) makes us more altruistic and magnanimous (willing to forebear and forgive rather than take offense and return tit for tat). One of the traditional roles of the elder is to bless the young, and one of the greatest blessings we can bestow is kindness.
The Science and Spirituality of Kindness
Recent research suggests what spiritual traditions have taught for millennia, namely that kindness and compassion are essential for our own well being and for the thriving (and survival) of our species.
The Dalai Lama, for example, explains: “No matter how much violence or how many bad things we have to go through, I believe that the ultimate solution to our conflicts, both internal and external, lies in returning to our basic underlying human nature which is gentle and compassionate.”
And in The Compassionate Instinct, Dacher Keltner and his coauthors summarize the findings of a wide range of recent studies in neuroscience, evolution, psychology, and other fields. “Research suggests that compassionate behavior not only exemplifies a good, moral way to live, but carries great emotional and physical health benefits for compassionate people, their families, and their communities. . . . Behaviors like compassion and kindness are actually conducive to human survival—and essential to human flourishing.”
Sources and Resources
His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler. Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009, p. 56
Keltner, Darcher, Jason Marsh, and Jeremy Adam Smith, eds. The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, p. 6.
I also recommend these two books about kindness and the joy that flows from it: The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and A Year of Living Kindly by Donna Cameron.
And for more on World Kindness Day and ways to spread kindness, visit these links:
https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/ (Contains new training materials including Cultivating Resilience through Kindness, a manual for classroom teachers)