Today is a great day to be kind. It is World Kindness Day which is a global initiative to spread compassion and make the world a better place. And, in a society increasingly characterised by greed, selfishness and well, unkindness, we need a World Kindness Day to try to bring some warmth and caring back into our communities.
In today's me me me society, we seem to have lost our way somewhat when it comes to kindness. Yet we are actually programmed to be kind because being nice gave us evolutionary advantages in that it is a process that encourages the exchange of resources within a group. Groups with altruists in them would be more altruistic as a whole because kindness is contagious (which is why our being kind can encourage others to follow suit) and thus kind groups were more likely to survive than selfish groups. Interestingly, Charles Darwin, in his book on evolution, Descent of Man, mentions 'survival of the fittest', a concept he is perhaps most well-known for, only twice, whereas benevolence gets a whopping 99 mentions.
Kindness benefits society in other ways too. A study at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada was designed to see what would happen when 9-11 year old children performed acts of kindnesses for four weeks. Those who performed the kind deeds ended up feeling happier than those who didn't. But what was really interesting was that these kids were also more accepting and tolerant of their peers than those who hadn't performed the random acts of kindness. Being kind then, seems to make us nicer people in general; perhaps this works via a self-fulfilling prophecy mechanism whereby we notice that we have done something nice and thus conclude that we must be a good person - and good people are accepting and tolerant of others.
Being kind doesn't just benefit society - it incurs massive benefits for the giver too. Being kind really does make us happy. Performing acts of kindness has consistently been shown to be related to being more satisfied with life; for example, a Japanese study in 2006 showed that kind people experience more happiness and have happier memories than less kind people. If you were to perform five kind acts every week, after six weeks you would most likely feel happier than had you not performed these acts (try it!).
Simply noting and counting our kind deeds can make us happy; by counting our acts of kindness in a week, we are reminding ourselves how nice we are and thus we are able to enhance our own self-esteem. This is why I ask depressed clients at my clinic to carry out daily acts of kindness - and to keep a journal of their good deeds.
Being kind can even make us healthier. In a 2002 study published in Pain Management Nursing, researchers found that patients with chronic pain experienced less pain, depression and disability when they counselled and helped other patients. Helping others could be so beneficial to our health that it might even save our lives; in another study, this time at the Buck Institute for Age Research in California, elderly volunteers who helped out for more than four hours per week were 44% less likely to die during the course of the study than those who didn't . And a study that followed 427 married women over a period of 30 years found that 52% of those who did not volunteer experienced a major illness - compared with only 36% who did volunteer.
How does being kind make us healthier? One theory is that being kind lowers the amount of stress hormones we produce; evidence for this theory comes from a study in Miami of patients with HIV which showed that the more altruistic patients did indeed have lower levels of stress hormones . In another study, older adults who volunteered to give a massage to babies also had lowered stress hormones. An alternative theory to explain the health benefits of being kind is that such acts of altruism stimulate the production of protective antibodies.
So what can we do to mark Word Kindness Day? Being kind need not cost the earth - in my book about kindness I set myself a 14 day challenge whereby each act of kindness had to cost less than the price of my book (99p). Here are ten simple, but effective ideas to make today a happy kindness day:
• Let a car out in front of you
• Compliment a stranger
• Be forgiving
• Give another person the benefit of the doubt
• Let a stranger share your umbrella
• Like a post on Facebook
• Retweet a stranger's comment or photo
• Message someone who has been ill
• Offer to help carry someone's bags or shopping
• Ask a sales assistant how their day is going
Such random acts of kindness can have far-reaching effects as they spread, like a benevolent virus, across the globe. Happy Kindness Day!