I strongly believe in the power of kindness. I believe that it’s the path to lasting success, to a better society and to greatly increased happiness. Contrary to popular belief, people aren’t just born kind. Kindness is something you learn through life experience, empathy and, like everything else, practice.
Kindness isn’t easy – it goes against everything we think we know about succeeding in this world. Nice guys finish last, it’s every person for themselves, don’t trust strangers, people are ungrateful and going out of your way for them is a waste of time. But there’s a difference between being nice and being a pushover, a difference between stating your boundaries and stepping on people, a difference between helping people for the sake of helping them and expecting something in return. So here are three ways to practice kindness in 2014, without making much effort or changing your life.
Stop and help
A few years ago, I was on the tube my way to work when an elderly man fell over in the crowded station. He was with his wife, who was quite frail, and started calling on people around her for help. I was the only person who stopped. I went to check if the man was OK, but I had no first aid training and only knew that he might have hurt his back or neck and I shouldn’t move him. I started asking random people around me if they would fetch a guard to come and help, as we were underground with no phone signal. It was rush hour, so people were in a hurry, but hundreds of people from various trains traipsed past and not one person stopped – some looked away awkwardly, others looked at me in disgust for bothering them. Eventually, a guard walked past, I managed to get his attention and the tube staff took over his care, but out of the hundreds of commuters that day, I was the only one who was willing to be ten minutes late for work to help a human being in trouble.
I went home that night absolutely despondent about human nature. Are we such an uncaring society that we would allow an elderly man to lie there injured because we have somewhere else to be? Since then I have always stopped to help, whether it’s someone in emotional distress or who needs physical help. It may not be much, but it makes me feel better to think I’m doing my bit to make the world a kinder place.
Catch yourself criticising
Our first reaction, as the human race, when someone falls into despair or disrepute is to criticise and ridicule them. You only have to look so far as the gossip magazines that line our newsagents, GP surgeries, hairdressers etc. to see this. If someone has a body that doesn’t fit the norm, we laugh. If someone is caught out with an addiction, we judge. If someone’s relationship falls apart, we gloat.
I think of the recent death of Cory Monteith as a prime example of this. Having recently faced a bereavement, I was particularly affected by someone I greatly respect, Lea Michele, losing her partner to addiction. The way the media treated her loss was astounding. If she so much as smiled, the barbed insinuation would be that she is a phony who doesn’t care that her boyfriend is dead. If she looked sad, the headlines would scream about how she’s not coping, or some other inappropriate judgement.
This is, of course, an extreme example, fuelled by an interest in celebrity, but the message is the same: judge before you empathise. The idea that a momentary facial expression could tell you anything about her grieving process, or even that it was analysed in that way was ludicrous.
In general, the hardest practice of all is taking a second to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is so counter intuitive and so very difficult to do, but once you get good at it, it opens the world up in ways you couldn’t have imagined.
Smile and wish people well
My instinctive nature is to find big crowds of people and their behaviours annoying. Sometimes, and this might sound a bit weird, I spend an hour walking around just smiling at people and generally wishing good things on them. As bizarre as it sounds, just the act of wishing kindness and happiness on others can shift your whole perspective.
It makes you feel more warm, it sends out a message that you are a kind and approachable person (or just a weirdo grinning at everyone, but hey, who cares?) and it really does lift your mood.
Let’s make 2014 a year of kindness, heartfelt friendships and loving intentions – how will you do your bit?