“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” ~Leo Buscaglia
Many of us are brought up today to look after number one, to go out and get what we want—and the more of it we can have, the better.
Our society preaches survival of the fittest and often encourages us to succeed at the expense of others.
I was no different, and while I noticed a tendency to feel sorry for others and want to help, I was too busy lining my own pockets and chasing my own success to act on these impulses. I worried that kindness was me being soft and, therefore, a weakness that may hamper my progress, especially at work as I moved up the ranks.
It was only when I quit my corporate career, after years of unhappiness, to realign my values and rebuild a life around my passions that I learned the true value of kindness and how it has impacted my life since.
I volunteered overseas with those less fortunate. I lived in yoga ashrams and spent time with Buddhist nuns and monks across many different countries. I learned how compassion and kindness can be a source of strength, and since then I’ve applied this wisdom, with success, repeatedly into my own life.
Our natural response to seeing someone in distress is to want to help. We care about the suffering of others and we feel good when that suffering is released. This applies if we do it ourselves, see it in a movie, or witness it in real life. It makes us feel good. Feeling like we’re making a difference in the world and helping those who need it brings us joy; it gives us meaning.
My grandma was the most giving person I ever knew.
When her weekly pension arrived she delighted in giving the grandchildren money, even though it meant having little to spend on herself.
Family members would get upset that they bought her lovely gifts, which she then re-gifted to others, often less fortunate. Over the years I began to understand that it if she gifted it to someone else, it meant that she liked it and thought it was worthy of sharing.
Knowing the pleasure she got from giving to others and that she wasn’t in the position to buy things herself, I saw it as her getting the gift twice: the pleasure of receiving it but then also the pleasure she got from being able to give it to someone else. The recipients were always grateful and touched by her kindness too.
Buddhists say, “All the happiness there is in the world comes from us wishing others to be happy.” When we do good deeds for others it makes us feel good.
James Baraz quotes statistics on why giving is good for you in his book Awakening Joy. “According to the measures of Social Capital Community Benchmark survey, those who gave contributions of time or money were 42 percent more likely to be happy than those who didn’t.”
Psychologists even have a term for the state of euphoria reported by those who give. It’s called “helpers high,” and it’s based on the theory that neuroscience is now backing up: Giving produces endorphins in the brain that make us feel good. This activates the same part of the brain as receiving rewards or experiencing pleasure does.
Practicing kindness also helps train the mind to be more positive and see more good in the world. There’s plenty of it out there; it just doesn’t seem like it because, while the kind acts outnumber the bad, they don’t make as many headlines.
When I think back to how life was before, I realize that I wasn’t even being kind to myself, so it makes sense that I didn’t value kindness for others. I’ve learned it’s about self-respect first, and from there it’s much easier to respect others. Kindness as a skill taps into our true strength. We can respect ourselves when we are being kind to others and to our planet.
Friends would warn me I was too soft and that people would walk all over me. Whether I was buying a coffee for a homeless man (he should get a job and buy his own coffee) or letting someone else go in the queue before me (you were here first, don’t let them push in).
Sometimes I think this comes from fear, or a sense of entitlement and protection of one’s self. I guess that’s the ego at play.
Most of us are kind. I believe it's part of our innate nature. It just gets a bit lost sometimes or drowned out by all the noise of a more selfish sense of being—particularly in our consumer-driven society where we’re taught we must have things for ourselves, and the more we can get, the better. Where money is such a force and where we put up fences rather than inviting people to share in what we have.
In business as a senior manager, I used to think that any signs of kindness would be viewed as weak. I used to dumb down skills like empathy and try to act like the tough business leader I thought the world expected me to be. In more recent years I’ve noticed that having time to be kind builds trust and relationships and garners the sort of respect that leads to strength in a leader.
Don’t get me wrong, it is not about being lenient, giving in, and not holding people accountable. It’s about being reasonable, fair, open, and trustworthy; supporting others, empathizing with them, recognizing them when they’ve done well, and showing you care. Not by overpaying them or extending their deadlines, but by asking how their weekend was, getting to know what motivates them, how they feel and who they are.
It’s too easy to justify desire, self-indulgence, and miserliness with the survival of the fittest mentality. We tell ourselves this is based on Darwinian evolution and competition to survive. What we have overlooked is that a fundamental part of our survival is cooperation, working together, looking after each other.
Humans did not evolve to be big and strong or with big fangs. We survived because we helped each other. Look how ancient tribes lived. They didn’t see competition as a priority but thrived on cooperation. It is the essential nature of living things to cooperate, not dominate. Yes, there’s competition in nature, but the basis is cooperation. In The Descent of Man Darwin did mention survival of the fittest (twice), but he also mentioned love (over ninety times).
I’m not suggesting we all need to donate our savings to charity or move overseas to rebuild huts in poor villages. There are many small gestures and so many opportunities every day: getting coffee for a coworker who’s struggling, helping a mother with her shopping, holding the door open for someone, smiling at a stranger, or asking the store assistant how their day is going.
It makes people feel good when they are on the receiving end, but also it makes us feel good because we are being kind and connecting with others on a genuine level. Kindness increases our sense of fulfillment and joy, it helps us build resilience, and it’s also a source of strength, as well as a skill that aids our success.