Eschewing everything your parents drilled into you as a kid is what adulting is all about, right? Eating boiled cauliflower (smother it in cheese sauce and then we’ll talk); learning to play the recorder (because Hot Cross Buns has proven so useful); being kind to others – oh, that one’s slipped off the radar, too? Oops. Now, experts are urging us to reclaim the practice of kindness – for our own mental wellbeing as well as the good of others.
We’re heading into a kindness revival – which is no bad thing. It’s down to the ever-growing trend of mindfulness, but perhaps not in the way you’d think. The rise of being mindful (y’know, cultivating an awareness of your present surroundings, inner thoughts and emotions) has been proven time and time again to have a very real positive effect on your mental and physical health. And yet there’s a growing concern that practising the Buddhist tradition as a standalone concept, without the warmth, goodwill and generosity (read: kindness) that Buddhists practise alongside it, means that we’re not only missing the point, but also doing our mental health a disservice.
“Mindfulness without kindness becomes dry, boring and cold,” says expert Shamash Alidina. “But when you switch the focus to ‘kindfulness’, it reminds you to be forgiving and friendly as you carry out mindfulness, so you’re able to get the very best out of it.”
Think of kindfulness as a sprinkling of superfood powder in an already nourishing smoothie – taking all the benefits of mindfulness, then turbocharging it for extra impact.It’s an even bigger deal if you have a natural tendency towards being a tad narcissistic. In 2016, the University of Amsterdam found that mindfulness can make self-absorbed people more selfish, by turning the focus even further away from other people and on to their own self-aggrandising thoughts. Meanwhile, a study of nearly 500 people at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, found that participants who performed random acts of kindness were more likely to report feeling happy or experience a boost in their mood than those who were just kind to themselves.
“Doing things for others offers people opportunities to feel greater positive emotions, such as joy, contentment and love,” says Dr Katherine Nelson, who led the research.
It’s also thought that acts of kindness trigger a hit of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter that controls your pleasure levels and emotional responses.There’s also the argument we’re all craving kindness more than before because, well, the world is screwed. Bernadette Russell – whose new book The Little Book Of Kindness documents what she learned from her year-long pledge to be kind to a stranger every day – says that, with the rise of everyday stressors and an endless barrage of bleak news, it’s no wonder we’re beginning to actively seek out the kindness that we’ve all dropped like it’s hot. “You can’t fix everything, but if you focus on kindness – on being kind to yourself, on acknowledging kindness in others and on seeking out stories of kindness in the wider world – it can help dial down your anxiety,” she says. “It certainly did mine.”
Cool to be kind
So, just stop bitching about your colleague, give more to charity and you’re done? Not quite – kindfulness isn’t simply about being good to people. Let’s break it down. “The mind wanders to the past and to the future and, due to the way your brain works, you’ll often land on negative thoughts,” explains Alidina.
“However, kindfulness is about ensuring your present-moment awareness is kind and caring. So if you’re having negative thoughts or experiencing a difficult emotion, you channel your caring, nurturing side rather than a critical or judgemental default.”
Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm, who coined the term ‘kindfulness’ in his book of the same name, writes that the concept ‘strengthens our ability to look after ourselves – and by looking after our own minds, we become a more kindful force for good in this world’. Ready to take things to the next level? Enter ‘loving-kindness’ meditation (or ‘mettā’, as it’s called in Buddhism), which involves repeating phrases that relate to what you’re hoping for, first for yourself and then for others. A Stanford University study published in the journal Emotion found that a single short session (we’re talking less than 10 minutes) proved enough to increase feelings of social connection and positivity towards others. Meanwhile, a Israeli study published in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy found that ‘loving-kindness’ meditation helped to alleviate self-criticism, increase self-compassion and improve depressive symptoms among self-critical individuals – with changes still present three months later. Further research over the past decade has even shown loving-kindness meditation can ease emotional distress associated with physical discomfort, proving beneficial for conditions including chronic back pain and migraines.
Respond in kind
So, you want to get your kindness on but don’t know where to start? The easiest way is to incorporate it into your daily life so it becomes habitual. Try one act a day, whether it’s a random act of kindness, a kindful meditation or a step in a longer-term kindness strategy. Russell advises to start simple. “It can just be smiling at people, thinking the best of others or giving up your seat on the bus – they don’t have to be grand gestures,” she says. And experts argue that, like charity, kindness must start at home.
“Kindness to ourselves is important,” says Chloe Brotheridge, clinical hypnotherapist and author of The Anxiety Solution. “Self-compassion – which basically means treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding as you would a good friend – has been linked to increased levels of wellbeing and lower levels of stress and anxiety. We often believe that we need to give ourselves a hard time in order to find the motivation to do or be better, but being over-critical actually saps your enthusiasm and means you’re less likely to even want to attempt things. Kindness to yourself cushions you against failure – so you’re more likely to try and try again.”
Russell adds, “Kindness has always been with us. We’re happier when treating each other kindly or being treated with kindness, so we just need to remind ourselves that, for society to function better, we need to be actively compassionate to each other.”
Come on then mate, get in here for a hug.