The value of kindness

This year I made three resolutions. Not outcome-based ones like lose 5kg (which I should do) or cycle more often (which I want to do) – but more ways of being ones. If I didn’t think the word was grossly misused and abused, I might even say spiritual ones.

I had to write down my three resolutions because I kept forgetting the last two, which probably says something important about the psychology of changing habits and focusing on one thing at a time. Nonetheless, I attempt to keep all three alive, written up on my white board for reference, because they represent a better way for me to be in the world. And they are inter-related – the latter two are a function of not remembering to do the first, particularly towards myself.

They are these:

  1. To lead with kindness
  2. To forgo permission and approval seeking
  3. To distance my sense of self from the whirlpool of other people’s moods and emotions

Kindness is not the default position of human beings, and I am no exception. We are status driven, social animals living in hierarchical societies that are by their very nature competitive. Our genes are geared towards self-interest, and our brains jump more easily to assuming the worst in people and situations. A quick glance around society, and the horror show that is social media, will confirm that kindness is rare enough to make it worthy of remark.

Nonetheless, whilst our brains aren’t necessarily wired for happiness or wellbeing, they get off on acts of kindness. Thousands of years ago the Buddha and Jesus saw through the veil of human suffering to a simple fact – we feel better about ourselves when we are kind to others. And societies are better off when we look after each other. And the neuroscience seems to agree. Kindness boosts hormones like serotonin and dopamine, leaving us feeling happier and more satisfied. Being kind also releases oxytocin (the chemical associated with bonding) into our bloodstream, lowering blood pressure and stress hormones, and reducing inflammation. Being kind is literally good for our hearts.

It takes work though. And, perhaps more importantly awareness.

Almost all of what we do happens without our conscious input. We don’t think our thoughts – they merely arise, and we become aware of them. We act blindly from impulses seated deep in the long history of human evolution, and from responses encoded by the care behaviours of our parents. We think and feel and do things based on experiences we don’t even remember and those we do but didn’t ask for.

Being aware of our minds and our automated responses –  our emotions, our words, our anxiety, our defensiveness –  is not our natural way of being, but it’s possible, and it’s freeing. Being mindful makes a space in which we get to choose our response in any situation.

Choosing to lead with kindness is an act of deliberate mindfulness on my part. A focus point on which to land and pause in the maelstrom that is modern life. I’m not trying to be a better person (well, of course I am, but that’s not the point), I’m just trying to be happier within myself. In a weird way, choosing to think kindly of others, to start from a place of kindness, is an act of selfishness.

I spent a lot of last year practicing kindness. It is easy to be kind to people who deserve it – to nice people having a hard time. Or when you’ve had a lifetime’s tuition, like Marcus Aurelius or the Dalai Lama. It’s harder when you feel aggrieved or stressed or too tired to attend to your emotions.

For me, practicing kindness is not about acts, random or otherwise, so much as a mental approach to dealing with others. My attempt to “be kind” last year brought into sharp relief my habit of jumping to judgement. You can’t be judgemental and kind at the same time. Neither can you be angry – or vengeful or gossipy or spiteful – and kind simultaneously. An attitude of kindness is the antidote to mean-spiritedness and our biological tendency towards self-interest.

Last year I used the practice of kindness as a way to navigate difficult situations and complex emotions. Now I want to find a way to make it sit at the centre of who I am. To make it easier to be kind to myself and others.

I fail at my three resolutions a lot. But that’s okay, because they are there as reminders of the person I want to be in the world – not yardsticks by which to judge myself. They are the sort of resolutions one can return to again and again, because they are resolutions that require practice. I’ve chosen them as mantras precisely because I fail at them frequently, and I need a hook on which to hang my intentions, as we all do. As we tumble through February and into the chaotic year ahead, they are the sort of resolutions that have a chance of success, I hope.



Photo by Adam Nemeroff on Unsplash

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