In this article, Casey Barnes, Assistant Head of Secondary at CIS International School in Saint Petersburg looks at how we can all make a difference with acts of kindness.
“Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” The Buddha
In this world of overwhelming challenges like climate disasters, war, poverty, political and social unrest – to name just a few – it can be difficult to believe that one person can make a difference. I have come to believe the easiest way to make a difference in the world is through kindness and the pursuit of happiness for others.
You can think of an act of kindness like a pebble dropped in a pond. Just as the pebble lifts lily pads at the other side of the pond, so an act of kindness lifts the person you help but also many of those people connected to that person. As their own spirits are lifted, their behaviour towards others is kinder, too. By being kind to someone for no reason you can become happier, find true satisfaction, and can experience something wonderful. When you see the person’s smile or feel the benefit of what you’ve done, or see how someone finds hope because of what you did, you will know it was worth it and will want to do it again.
Being kind is not something that benefits only the recipient of kindness. The person who makes the difference can gain something positive, too. Research supports that when we are kind to someone or do something helpful for another that we experience a positive chemical response as well. When you engage in an act of kindness, endorphins (a natural painkiller and pleasure chemical) are produced in your brain. People who are kind have 23% less of the stress hormone cortisol than the average population. If you want to feel calmer, more optimistic, and have improved feelings of self-worth, consider helping others – small acts of kindness can make a big difference in your life as well as the lives of others.
Every person you interact with, you change in some way
K.E. Løgstrup is a Danish philosopher who has been highly influential in the social culture of Scandinavian countries. His most notable idea was presented in the 1956 book The Ethical Demand. In this book he postulates that “you never deal with another person without holding a portion of their life in your hands. It may be very little, a passing mood, the enthusiasm you cause to grow or wither, a revulsion you deepen or alleviate. But it can also be a terrifying amount so that it is up to you whether the other person’s life succeeds or not. By our very attitude to another, we help to shape that person’s world. By our attitude to the other person we help to determine the scope and hue of his or her world; we make it large or small, bright, or drab, rich, or dull, threatening, or secure. We help to shape his or her world not by theories and views but by our very attitude towards him or her. Herein lies the unarticulated and one might say anonymous demand that we take care of the life which trust has placed in our hands.”
To paraphrase, Løgstrup says that you never interact with another human being without holding a little bit of that person’s life in your
hands and that you have an ethical responsibility for how you affect that person. In other words, it is our duty to treat those around us in a way that increases their happiness. This applies in every aspect of life, but in the workplace, we can fall into a pattern of thinking that puts other concerns first. Our attitudes towards other human beings can be negatively affected by time pressure, economic pressure, performance pressure, and so on. We know that people very quickly adopt the norms and behaviours of those around them (in social psychology calls this is called conformity) and toxic leadership or cultures rapidly make people act in ways that border on sociopathic behaviour. But it doesn’t matter what types of pressure your job puts on you; Løgstrup argues that none of that gives you the license to treat other people with less than the utmost respect and care. Indeed, we have an ethical demand to treat employees, customers, co-workers, vendors, and the like, well.
This goes double for leaders, whose behaviour – good or bad – is always seen by employees and quickly adopted as the new norm. We live in an increasingly interconnected world where nearly everything we do affects other things. For many, this is a frightening concept, but it is also very encouraging because it means that if you are kind you will be positively affecting others.
Kindness comes naturally
Kindness is natural to us. Being kind to each other is part of who we are, both on a spiritual level and on a genetic level. ‘Survival of the fittest’ has been misinterpreted for years as the fastest, strongest, and most courageous. But the fittest is he or she who is better able to help others and to cooperate for the greater good. And we see the effects of this wiring today: kindness is good for our health. It boosts the immune system; it impacts the brain in multiple ways, leading to positive feelings and closeness to others; it impacts the cardiovascular system, protecting us from the seeds of heart disease; and it even relaxes the nervous system. These positive ‘side-effects’ exist because kindness is wired in us. It gave our ancient ancestors a healthy edge and was thus selected by nature. Like an angel unfolding its wings, it’s ancient spirit is now spread throughout the 80 trillion cells in our bodies. There is no part of us that does not know who and what we really are.
Many people have a negative view of human nature. They think that we are born selfish and bad and must be trained to behave. Only the threat of punishment, either in this life or the afterlife, is what keeps us behaving well. But that’s just not true – we are not born bad. Quite the opposite, say scientists: human children begin to behave pro-socially very early in life, before two years of age. Studies have documented one-year-olds’ abilities to comfort others in distress, participate in household tasks, and help adults by bringing or pointing to out of reach objects. In my favourite study on this, German researchers looked at helping behaviour in the toddler. A toddler saw an adult with a heavy box in his hands who needed help with some simple task, i.e., getting a cupboard open. In the videos from the experiment, you will see these small children consistently walk over and open the cupboard for the adult with no prompting from anyone. What’s more, they seem to really enjoy the opportunity to help someone else. It’s a very positive and devastatingly cute sight and it clearly shows that wanting to make others happy with no expectation of reward is part of our nature.
An act of kindness every day
Vanessa King is a positive psychology expert and author of 10 Keys to Happier Living. Her research shows that small actions can make a difference both to ourselves and others. If people carry out six extra acts of kindness on one day, that increased happiness and the effects of those acts on the person has been shown to last for six weeks. Prosocial behaviour has been linked to improved morale, self-esteem, happiness, and wellbeing, and it could reduce depressive symptoms too. Happier people are more likely to do things for others, and that has a contagion effect. We know that people doing good deeds send ripples out to other people and that’s shown to be statistically significant. The expression ‘do to others as you would have done to you’ really does hold true. King consciously tries to act kindly every day. “One way is just to give people the benefit of the doubt. If someone upsets me or is rude, I try to think: They might just be having a bad day. It can make a world of difference.”
Mark Williamson, director of the social movement Action for Happiness says that he doesn’t believe random acts of kindness will, in themselves, solve all our problems in society. But they do two important things: firstly, it’s a direction of travel towards wider change and two, they have a contagious effect. So, when we carry out acts of kindness, other people see them, and it sparks more kindness. If, for example, you are friendly to the bus driver he’s more likely to be considerate to the next customer who’s more likely than to go home and have a positive conversation with their partner. Williamson also thinks people who do small things to spread happiness are more likely to act in other, ‘bigger’ pro-social ways too. So rather than these small acts undermining bigger social change, they help to support and encourage it.
Fred Gratzon, a successful US business leader, defines success like this: “Here is how I know someone is successful – if you can give from your abundance. Findings from positive psychology that have been confirmed in countless studies are that we derive more happiness from doing nice things for others than for ourselves. It’s simply part of our nature to be altruistic, generous, and compassionate. We want to be happy and we want those around us to be happy too.”
What can you do?
It is easy to think that happiness is a distant goal that requires huge changes in a person’s life. The way to happiness could be through wealth, fame, perfectly healthy living, spiritual enlightenment, or something similarly complicated and difficult. But according to research, it’s a lot simpler and many small actions have been shown to have significant effects on our happiness. If you need some small acts of kindness ideas to get started, check out the below:
- Pick up some litter.
- Thank a teacher or mentor with a surprise gift.
- Send a list of things you admire in a colleague.
- Leave a positive sticky-note on a co-worker’s desk.
- Bring sweet treats to work.
- Send your mother flowers.
- Plant a tree.
- Do more chores without someone asking you.
- Help a neighbour with their groceries.
- Shovel a neighbour’s driveway when it snows.
- Put your phone away completely during a conversation.
- Prepare a meal for your work team.
- Take someone on a random adventure.
- Send a care package.
- Bring someone a souvenir from a trip.
- Send dessert to another table.
- Let someone behind you at the grocery store go in front of you.
- Leave a very generous tip.
- And lastly, treat yourself for no reason – you deserve kindness too.
We don’t need to do big things to make a difference
Most of us today won’t be able to change a person’s life. But a smile and some pleasantness are always a good thing. Know that it does make a difference, even if you don’t see it. In addition to that, take some time to think of some of the ways you could be kind today. Who are the people in your life, from your home to your work, to the other people you interact with? Is there any way that you can help any of them today?
This article was originally published in Youngzine, Autumn 2020, the CIS Education Group Journal and has been reproduced with the kind permission of Ildar Ilyazov, Head of Education Projects at CIS Education Group.
Check out other articles from international school leaders in our Around the World series.
Read more on kindness in our article How to promote kindness in your classroom.
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