The Science of Kindness

Columnist Julia Baird (Sydney Morning Herald 21 December 2013) writes:

Multiple studies now show: a single act of kindness can trigger dozens more (the same applies to acts of selfishness), and repetitive acts of kindness can make people happier, and less depressed…Even just thinking about kindness can rewire our brains. This is the point at which neuroscience now meets religion. A decade of research into meditation and kindness has mirrored the biblical prescriptions: “Whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Dr Donja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California who has been researching happiness for 20 years, found that people who committed kind acts once a week were the happiest; something that builds over time.

Here, near the end of 2013, as the media reflect on important events, two significant people appear prominently: Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis. These two men are recognized as revolutionaries; what they have done, how they behave(d) — they are not normal. They both serve as models of humility, forgiveness, compassion, strength, and kindness. As we think of them, we are humbled, and perhaps inspired to emulate them.

But how? What can we do to honor and encourage these excellent qualities in ourselves and others?

Here’s an example from an unexpected source: Clinton Peake is an Australian cricket player who bowed out of a promising career early because of other priorities. When he sits down to dinner each night, he and his wife ask their young children, “What did you learn today? How have you been kind? What did you really enjoy about your day?”

Did you catch that question in the middle? How have you been kind today? Were any of us asked that question at the dinner table when we were growing up? For many of us, that key question has been missing for a long time. We can ask ourselves, and if we have friends close enough, we can ask each other: will you tell me about an act of kindness you did?

Many of us do kind things regularly, but we may be shy about discussing them. I find that if someone asks me and I tell them about ordinary activities involving giving, it makes both of us feel good. It’s not only the act itself, and the possible follow-on results of each act of kindness, but the recollecting of it, the sharing of it, that re-wires our brains. A positive feedback loop can be established that reminds us of how right it feels to give, how free we are when we’re not grasping. The more we give, kindness and other gifts, the happier not only we will be but everyone around us. It could be revolutionary.

1 Comment

Filed under Compassion, General

One response to “The Science of Kindness

  1. Thanks for this post, Lynn. Kindness as revolution: indeed. Do you know Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, ‘Kindness?’ Here it is, with gratitude: KINDNESS

    Before you know what kindness really is
    you must lose things,
    feel the future dissolve in a moment
    like salt in a weakened broth.
    What you held in your hand,
    what you counted and carefully saved,
    all this must go so you know
    how desolate the landscape can be
    between the regions of kindness.
    How you ride and ride
    thinking the bus will never stop,
    the passengers eating maize and chicken
    will stare out the window forever.

    Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
    you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
    lies dead by the side of the road.
    You must see how this could be you,
    how he too was someone
    who journeyed through the night with plans
    and the simple breath that kept him alive.

    Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
    you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
    You must wake up with sorrow.
    You must speak to it till your voice
    catches the thread of all sorrows
    and you see the size of the cloth.

    Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
    only kindness that ties your shoes
    and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
    purchase bread,
    only kindness that raises its head
    from the crowd of the world to say
    it is I you have been looking for,
    and then goes with you every where
    like a shadow or a friend.

    –Naomi Shihab Nye

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