Why Choose Kindness

Author Article

“Three things in human life are important,” wrote novelist Henry James in the early 20th century. “The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”

As one of humankind’s cardinal virtues and most cherished social currencies, kindness – no doubt – is important. According to one hypothesis, pro-social traits like kindness may have even primed our species for the evolution of language. As children and as adults, we seek kindness from our friends and our mates. We spend our days giving and receiving kindness. We remember kindness, too, its trail of goodwill echoing through our memory banks like sweet perfume, long after the moment has passed. Kindness moves us. It nourishes and heals; strengthens and uplifts. A smile, a touch born of kindness can crack open the most rugged of hearts, unclench the tightest of fists. It has been hailed by poets, philosophers and spiritual leaders as a gift, a religion, a language audible to the deaf and visible to the blind, a weapon to fight evil, and mankind’s greatest delight. And now, science is showing just why the accolades ring true.

Kindness boosts well-being

If you recall the rush of positive feelings you experienced the last time you performed a kind act, you would likely agree that kindness feels good. This distinct sense of satisfaction, the “warm glow” or the “helper’s high” that ignites the brain’s reward systems, is said to be among the drivers of pro-social behavior in humans. Kindness not only feels good but also does us good. To begin with, connecting with others through kind deeds allows us to meet our basic psychological needs of relatedness and belonging. Performing acts of kindness can also increase life satisfactionpositive mood, and peer acceptance. It can stimulate the release of serotonin and oxytocin, which can increase trust, reduce fear and anxiety, and help us read each other’s minds. For the elderly, prosocial behavior can promote longevity. For teenagers, it can boost self-esteem. Kindness also makes us happy. Researchers at Oxford University recently found that we can increase our happiness levels when we are kind to those with whom we enjoy close as well as weak ties (for example, family and strangers). Even observing others perform kind acts and, importantly, being kind to ourselves, can make us happier.

For psychotherapist and author of The Kindness Cure Dr. Tara Cousineau, kindness is a moment of human connection. Since every interaction carries the potential of threat and reward, it takes vulnerability and courage to hold these potentials at the same time in this moment of connection. Perhaps that is why in our modern culture, where it is easy to grow suspicious of kindness, to see it as weak and soft, to be bombarded with messages that the world is an unsafe and unkind place, Cousineau views kindness as “love in action.”

Here are three insights into kindness from Dr. Cousineau.

Start with yourself

In her experience as a psychotherapist, Cousineau has observed how remarkably unkind people can be towards themselves when they talk about their lives. Perhaps worst of all, we don’t recognize how unkind we are to ourselves. “If we would tune into our internal dialogue, most likely we wouldn’t say those same words to someone we love: I am not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I am not something enough. We are mired in regrets from the past or worries about the future. We compare and despair,” she says. Naturally, it may be easier to be kind to others than to ourselves, so it may take some intention and effort to befriend ourselves, too.

Marianna Pogosyan
Source: Marianna Pogosyan

The key to learning to be kinder to ourselves lies in self-compassion. Self-compassionstands upon three pillars: self-kindness(treating yourself with the kindness and understanding you would show to someone you love), common humanity (recognizing that you are not alone in your pain and that suffering is a shared human experience), and mindfulness (holding your negative experiences as they are – without suppressing them or over-identifying with them). As a bonus, self-compassion comes with a wealth of well-being benefits: from building resilienceoptimism and healthier stress response, to reducing depressionanxiety and rumination (for review, see Neff & Germer, 2017).

Cultivate your kindness instinct

Some people are inclined to be more empathic than others. In general, however, we all are born with a kindness (compassion) instinct. Our nervous systems have evolved to have a highly attuned sensitivity to caring about others. Darwin considered the “sympathy instinct” as one of the strongest human instincts which helped our species survive and flourish. It is this instinct that we need to nurture, according to Cousineau, by strengthening our compassion muscle and its neural wiring. And not only in kindergarten, when children are taught to write thank-you notes and do kind acts but also across the lifespan. “Kindness is not random,” says Cousineau. “We have to intentionally redirect our energy and attention to noticing what is good, pleasant and beautiful about humanity.” We might be surprised at the joy we stumble upon in the process.

One way of cultivating compassion and kindness is through loving-kindness meditation. It involves closing your eyes, thinking of someone in your life who you love dearly and sending them wishes of wellbeing, love, and safety by repeating silently:

CC0/Unsplash
Source: CC0/Unsplash

May you feel safe, 

May you feel happy, 

May you feel healthy, 

May you live with ease. 

After holding your warm and tender feelings in your heart, send them to someone else, again, repeating silently the four phrases. Don’t forget to tuck yourself in your compassion circle as well, says Cousineau. Repeat the phrases for yourself, “May I feel safe, may I feel happy…” Gradually expand your circle of people to whom you are sending your well-wishes and love to include people in your neighborhood or community, and then even further to all living beings. (Here is a guided loving-kindness meditation from psychologist Barbara Fredrickson). Practicing this meditation regularly can increase self-compassion and decrease self-criticism. Other well-being benefits of the loving-kindness meditation include increases in positive emotionsempathysocial connection, as well as a decrease in negative emotionschronic pain and PTSD symptoms. It doesn’t take much for us to wish well upon others, whether in meditation or as we throng through crowded streets on our daily commute. And yet, we might just spill some of that goodwill on ourselves by the time we reach our destinations.

Find ways to be kind

To cultivate kindness as a practice, Cousineau invites us to reflect on one key question:

How can I bring kindness into my day, whether to me or another person, in any small way?

CC0/Unsplash
Source: CC0/Unsplash

We could look for something generous to say about the people with whom we are interacting. We could find ways to be of service. We could recharge our days with moments of gratitude and appreciation, caring and curiosity. We could show ourselves the kindness we crave from others through self-compassion and self-care. This includes becoming aware when we feel overwhelmed, depleted and when our threat systems are ignited. After all, as Cousineau notes, stress is often what gets in the way of kindness. “It’s harder to bring online our sense of caring when we are in survival mode, even if it’s a mental state,” she notes. At the end of the day, Cousineau suggests bringing front and center of our consciousness the things that went well – the moments when we gave ourselves and others the gift of kindness – and to notice what happens. Perhaps, as Scottish biographer James Boswell wrote in the 18th century, we could witness our vessels being filled drop by drop with acts of kindness, until, at last, our hearts run over.

Many thanks to Tara Cousineau for her time and insights. Dr. Cousineau is a clinical psychologist, staff psychologist at Harvard University, and author of The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World

Feeling Anxious? Being Kind Can Change That

Author Article

“Walking around and offering kindness to others in the world reduces anxiety and increases happiness and feelings of social connection,” says Douglas Gentile, professor of psychology at Iowa State University. “It’s a simple strategy that doesn’t take a lot of time that you can incorporate into your daily activities.”

Researchers tested the benefits of three different techniques intended to reduce anxiety and increase happiness or well-being. They did this by having college students walk around a building for 12 minutes and practice one of the following strategies:

  • Loving-kindness: Looking at the people they see and thinking to themselves, “I wish for this person to be happy.” Students were encouraged to really mean it as they were thinking it.
  • Interconnectedness: Looking at the people they see and thinking about how they are connected to each other. It was suggested that students think about the hopes and feelings they may share or that they might take a similar class.
  • Downward social comparison: Looking at the people they see and thinking about how they may be better off than each of the people they encountered.

The study, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, also included a control group in which researchers instructed students to look at people and focus on what they see on the outside, such as their clothing, the combination of colors, textures, as well as makeup and accessories. Researchers surveyed all students before and after the walk to measure anxiety, happiness, stress, empathy, and connectedness.

WHICH TECHNIQUE IS BEST?

The researchers compared each technique with the control group and found those who practiced loving-kindness or wished others well felt happier, more connected, caring, and empathetic, as well as less anxious. The interconnectedness group was more empathetic and connected. Downward social comparison showed no benefit, and was significantly worse than the loving-kindness technique.

Students who compared themselves to others felt less empathetic, caring, and connected than students who extended well wishes to others. Previous studies have shown downward social comparison has a buffering effect when we are feeling bad about ourselves. The researchers found the opposite.

“At its core, downward social comparison is a competitive strategy,” says coauthor Dawn Sweet, a senior lecturer in psychology. “That’s not to say it can’t have some benefit, but competitive mindsets have been linked to stress, anxiety, and depression.”

The researchers also examined how different types of people reacted to each technique. They expected people who were naturally mindful might benefit more from the loving-kindness strategy, or narcissistic people might have a hard time wishing for others to be happy. The results surprised them somewhat.

“This simple practice is valuable regardless of your personality type,” says coauthor Lanmiao He, a graduate student in psychology. “Extending loving-kindness to others worked equally well to reduce anxiety, increase happiness, empathy, and feelings of social connection.”

US VS. THEM

Social media is like a playground for comparisons: he makes more money than I do; she has a nicer car. While the study did not look specifically at social media, Gentile says the results demonstrate that comparison is a risky strategy.

“It is almost impossible not to make comparisons on social media,” Gentile says.

“Our study didn’t test this, but we often feel envy, jealousy, anger, or disappointment in response to what we see on social media, and those emotions disrupt our sense of well-being.”

Comparison works well when we are learning something or making a choice, Gentile says. For example, as children we learn by watching others and comparing their results to ours. However, when it comes to well-being, comparison is not as effective as loving-kindness, which consistently improves happiness.

Source: Iowa State University

How Self-Help Can Help The World

Author Article

Many meditators, yogis, and other spiritual practitioners will answer this question with a resounding yes. Critics – ranging from religious studies and management scholars to serious Buddhist practitioners – may disagree.

Mindfulness meditation, which has grown exponentially in popularity in recent years, is commonly associated with a wide-ranging set of contemplative practices aimed at training oneself to pay “attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally,” as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society.

Early leaders in the mindfulness movement, many of whom came of age in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, had a more activist bent; they hoped that mindfulness would lead to a wave of self-actualization, increased compassion for others, and democratic decision-making. With these tools, humanity would be able to collectively address the many complex social problems we collectively face, such as racism, overconsumption, economic inequality, and environmental degradation.

To investigate the spread of mindfulness across powerful social institutions in science, healthcare, education, business, and the military, I travelled around the country from 2010-2012, and again in 2015, talking with leaders of the mindfulness movement. The passionate, inspiring mindfulness advocates at top Ivy League and flagship universities, at Fortune 500 companies like Google and General Mills, at K-12 schools, and the U.S. military had personally benefited from meditating and felt bolstered by a wave of scientific evidence which has supported the practices’ beneficial effects on well-being, memory, attention, meta-awareness, cognitive flexibility, and emotional regulation. Above all, by sharing mindfulness, meditators believed they not only transformed themselves, but the world around them.

Yet, most meditators I spoke with revealed more self-centered effects from spending time in quiet contemplation. This was not surprising to some of mindfulness’ leaders.

Sitting in his office at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society in January of 2015 in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, Executive Director Saki Santorelli told me that people loved to do mindfulness because they learned about who they were, and through the practice, they transcended who they previously were, and who they had thought they were. This process was intrinsically rewarding and exhilarating.

People come to their mindfulness program, he said, because they have “a Real. Life. Problem. Something is just not right,” he said. “And what keeps people engaged is . . . the most interesting topic in the world.” He paused and turned toward me.

“What is this most interesting topic in the world?” He paused again, waiting.

“The most interesting topic in the world,” he responded, “is me.” He continued, “People come here because they are interested in me. Meaning themselves. And something’s not quite right about me or I want to learn more about me including “how am I going to live with this condition for the next 20 or 30 or 40 years?”
In teaching mindfulness at the Center, they seek to “draw out,” rather than “pour in” knowledge. They seek to ignite “a fire with people to know more about ‘who’ or ‘what’ I actually am,” he said. He explained:

They start with practice. Practice reveals not because I say so, but because they discover it. They discover that they have a breath, they discover that it feels a particular way, they discover something about the relative present moment, whatever that is. They discover something about what happens in their viscera when they have a particular thought or a particular emotion . . . They discover the ways that they’re conditioned or limiting themselves or living today out of yesterday’s memory, about whom or what I am or what I’m capable of. And they love it. . . . And whenever people discover a little bit more about who they are, they transcend. And ultimately, I think that’s what’s transformative—is that sense of transcending. Transcend some idea about who you think they are, even if it’s a tiny little idea, and then you feel more room.

Others found meditation useful for different reasons. Neuroscientist Ravi Chaudhary (pseudonym used upon request) thought mindfulness practice provided him with a critical cognitive distance that enabled him to pause, reflect, and ultimately, have greater self-control in facing the challenges that arose in his life. He has learned “not be super reactive to unpleasant situations,” he said. “There’s difficult situations no matter what,” but with mindfulness, he now can take “a moment, sit back and accept that . . . I am not part of it, but rather it is there and I am here.” This helps him make decisions “as if it’s a presumed situation,” and he feels less entangled with difficult situations.

These effects of mindfulness meditation are no doubt important: they help people learn about themselves and, hopefully, engage in more thoughtful decision-making. Mindfulness meditation can also have a therapeutic effect for many people, helping them de-stress, calm themselves and provide openings to experience a sense of peace.

However, mindfulness’s impact off the cushion of the larger organizations and communities where it is practiced largely remains to be seen. Most mindfulness programs have never gotten around to confronting the many larger-scale social problems we face as a society; in fact many newer practitioners might be surprised to learn that founders of early mindfulness programs had sought out such activist-minded ends. In speaking with dozens of program leaders and mindfulness teachers, only a handful had any evidence at all that their programs’ impacts extended beyond the program’s direct participants and into the larger organizations they were a part of.

The impact of mindfulness practice, even among top CEOs and corporate leaders, is largely not trickling down into their larger companies and causing them to cut down expected work hours or loads or increase wages, which are the fundamental causes of the stress many Americans face today. While meditation practices may individually improve the lives of practitioners, and perhaps even those they regularly interact with, it is less clear how the practices lead to the collective action needed to address the complex social problems we face daily in our workplaces and in our democracy.

Yet, the myth that mindfulness will lead to a more progressive, utopian world continues to linger, as a mirage, that might appear just around the bend.

Featured image credit: “Take a seat photo” by Simon Wilkes. Public Domain via Unsplash.

The Benefits Of Being Kind To Yourself Are More Powerful Than You Think, According To Science

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BY 

It’s not always easy to be nice to yourself. I’m not sure why this is, but I do know that that cliché about being your own worst critic is definitely true. It’s just so easy to get into the habit of placing other people’s needs or desires (read: your mom, your SO, your boss) way, way above your own. But the benefits of being kind to yourself can actually have a deeper, more lasting impact than you might immediately assume. While self-compassion is an important habit to practice no matter what, the results of a new study suggest it can have a very real, positive, if unexpected impact on your physical body.

Researchers from the Universities of Exeter and Oxford in the UK discovered that, when you actively practice self-compassion, it can actually calm and slow down your heart rate, not to mention switch off your body’s threat response, aka its fight-or-flight mode. Just to put that in perspective a little, when your body’s threat response is activated more than it needs to be (i.e. when it’s consistently activated during times of stress), it can legitimately damage your immune system over time, per research published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology. So, if there are ways to avoid having that bodily response when it isn’t necessary, it’s all the better for your well-being.

Giphy

As for the new research from the UK, which has been published in the academic journal Clinical Psychological Science, here’s how that study went down: According to a press release from the University of Exeter, 135 students from the school were divided into five groups. Each group received different audio instructions, and while some included exercises of self-compassion, others “induced a critical inner voice.” To gauge how these different instructions affected the participants, the researchers tracked their heart rate and sweat responses, and they asked the students to report how they felt after hearing the instructions, with questions like “how safe they felt, how likely they were to be kind to themselves and how connected they felt to others.”

After all of that, the researchers found that the two groups whose audio instructions were encouraging them to be kind to themselves both reported feeling more self-compassion and connection to other people, and yes, their bodily responses illustrated feelings of relaxation and safety as well: Their heart rates dropped and slowed down, and the participants’ bodies produced less sweat when listening to self-compassion exercises. Meanwhile, the instructions that guided the participants toward a more critical inner monologue seemed to lead to the opposite results: a faster heartbeat, more sweat, and more feelings of distress. The main author of the study, Dr. Hans Kirschner, said in the study’s press release,

These findings suggest that being kind to oneself switches off the threat response and puts the body in a state of safety and relaxation that is important for regeneration and healing.

Giphy

Co-author of the study, Dr. Anke Karl, added,

Previous research has found that self-compassion was related to higher levels of well-being and better mental health, but we didn’t know why.

Our study is helping us understand the mechanism of how being kind to yourself when things go wrong could be beneficial in psychological treatments. By switching off our threat response, we boost our immune systems and give ourselves the best chance of healing.

And listen, I know self-compassion is kind of this lofty, what-does-it-really-mean kind of idea, which can make it feel daunting to practice or really trust as a legitimately helpful habit. But being kind to yourself can truly mean so many different things. Maybe you can create an easy ritual for yourself at the end of a hard week, like getting a bagel at your favorite bodega. Or maybe you can climb into bed early on a Friday night so you can devour more of that graphic novel you never have time to read. Maybe self-kindness just means making a quick list in your phone of all the things that made you smile that day.

Whatever it looks like for you, just do it — give it a try. What’s there to lose, right?