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The Random Acts of Kindness That Are Sweeping the World

02/02/2014 22:16 GMT | Updated 04/04/2014 10:59 BST

Recession. Cuts. Political scandals. Rain, cold, dark, and more rain. The news is getting people down and the season is at it's murkiest, while the light is still slow to return, and spring feels just a little too far away.

Perhaps that's why so many people are looking forward to Random Acts of Kindness Week this February 10-16, and taking it upon themselves to spread good cheer post-holiday season. Founded by non-profit organisation The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation (RAK) in 1995, this week-long campaign aims to 'inspire others to be kind' and 'legitimise kindness as a way to improve society.' RAK is based in the US, where kindness campaigns are many and varied, such as 'toy drives' to collect and deliver toys to children in need, individuals paying for the groceries or coffee of the person behind them in a queue, and colleagues pitching in to fund holidays for stressed co-workers. American author Cleveland Amory said: 'what this world needs is a new kind of army - the army of the kind' - and this is exactly what is happening all over the globe. There is a growing army of people intent on spreading kindness, including this website dedicated to spreading kindness in Australia, Canadians taking it to the extreme with the aim 'to conquer the world through kindness', and Japan's sweetly-named 'Small Kindness Movement'.

The kindness movement takes many names and forms but its unified message is the same: to spread goodwill to our fellow human beings, to ourselves, and to the environment. This campaign appeals to people because it allows them to be creative and lead inventive campaigns such as Global Love Letters, which involves writing and delivering anonymous love letters to people, while through her project One Million Lovely Letters Jodi Ann Bickley writes a love letter to anyone who emails her requesting one, which she calls 'a little hug in an envelope'.

Is this sort of altruism innate to humankind? It's a topic that has long been debated, as some people call all good deeds selfish at heart, since doing kind acts for others is good for our mental health. Science tells us that altruism has been necessary for humans to survive in close environments, while a new study has found that people are more likely to engage in kind acts when they are already feeling well themselves, which sort of brings us full circle in the debate.

But sometimes we forget how to be kind. The part of the brain that involves kind acts can be underdeveloped, as researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found. According to their findings, people can be trained to be more compassionate, and lead researcher Helen Weng states that: 'it's kind of like weight training...[W]e found that people can actually build up their compassion 'muscle' and respond to others' suffering with care and a desire to help.'

Here in the UK, I spoke to Samantha Munday, founder of the February Love Project and the popular campaign Love Rocks! which has been going for three years and involves painting rocks with positive pictures and messages and leaving them in public places for strangers to find.

Ms Munday originally thought of the idea as an interesting activity to do with her toddler who she is home-educating. 'It was coming up to Valentine's Day, which made it... perfect because I personally love Valentine's Day, but I know a lot of people struggle with the focus on the romantic side of love, and struggle with feeling rejected and alone because of that. To me, it's all about making people feel loved: your family, your friends, and why not strangers too?'

The response to her idea has been surprising, as something that originally began as a nice thing to do with the family soon evolved into a worldwide project. Love Rocks! has members taking part from the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, as well as all over the UK and Europe. It's almost as if kindness is catching.

Sometimes we need a bit of perspective and inspiration to shake off the winter blues, and there's certainly enough goodwill around to achieve it. I suspect that this goodwill extends far beyond the Christmas season every year, but that without high shopping sales and sentimental TV adverts to remind us of a wonderful human trait, many small acts of kindness go unnoticed. Since we're not all painters or knitters, RAK has a long and varied list of fun things for people to do to spread good cheer on its website, while popular columnist Danny Wallace has written a book of 365 ways to make the world a better place through kinds acts.

I asked Ms Munday why she thinks Love Rocks! has been so successful. She says 'because it's so accessible - anyone can paint a heart on a rock', and I am inclined to agree. But I think there's another reason at the core of it - which is that on these wet, gloomy days, with constant bad news flickering at us from our many screens, we could all use a little more love.

Now if you'll excuse me I'm off to collect some rocks.