Kindness may be more critical to developing a healthy society in the modern, post-industrial era than any of us ever imagined. For example, university researchers have found that when people perform small acts of kindness, they report a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.
Along with developing a sense of higher purpose, the medical community has found that people can lower their blood pressure by simply observing someone else perform unselfish, kind behaviors. Neuroscientists have discovered that oxytocin, the “love” hormone, is released during these passive situations. Oxytocin contributes to our sense of well-being, enabling individuals to experience trust and feel empathy. It’s fascinating that even observing small acts of kindness has the intrinsic value of helping people feel better.
In addition, biologists have found that people who experience kindness also have stronger immune systems, an increase in cognitive skills, and more physical energy. Who doesn’t want better health and faster recall, combined with more energy?
When people feel more connected and trusting – the glue that “holds” cultures together, society also benefits. One study at the University of California found that people who consistently receive encouragement and support are more likely to achieve their goals. The data reported from a number of scientific journals supports the concept that expressing empathy and compassion through small acts of kindness leads to a healthier, more productive society.
With so many benefits related to kindness, let’s look at how to nurture this trait in kids.
The Center for Greater Good in Action, based in Berkeley, California, recommends 4 basic techniques (based on scientific-driven research) to help kids develop a greater capacity for kindness.
1. Never use extrinsic rewards to encourage kind behaviors. Why? Since kindness naturally reinforces considerate and unselfish behavior, external rewards may actually distract from the pleasure that acting with kindness triggers. Researchers believe that using external rewards may actually reinforce the view that kindness is only necessary when it is performed publicly for approval.
2. Praise the character, not the behavior. The goal is to instill the habit of acting with empathy and compassion as part of the moral code or identity of a child. The data indicates it is more effective to reinforce and call attention to a child’s moral character, not just the action or behavior.
3. Criticize unkind behavior, but not the character of the child. Criticizing specific behavior can lead to guilt. When children feel guilty, they learn they can make choices to change their behavior. Conversely, when the character of a child is questioned, the child may feel shame and that can lead to feelings of hopelessness. As a result, when a child feels discouraged, it is harder to take the steps that lead to behavior changes.
4. Model kind behavior so kids see the actions and not just the words. Our actions speak volumes more than our words. Incorporating small acts of compassion, showing genuine concern, or giving unselfishly without expectations can help children feel better and even reduce anxiety (remember the data on observing kind behaviors). Intentionally role modeling kind behaviors also provides an opportunity for kids to see the consequences of kindness.
It is interesting to note that so many cultures use their oral traditions to show the positive consequences of kindness. Using timeless stories to begin conversations around the benefits of kindness helps foster the idea that even small, random acts of kindness can lead to a range of positive consequences in the world.
Margret Read MacDonald has carefully selected over 40 tales that highlight seemingly small acts of kindness in her most recent book, Kindness Tales, World Folktales to Talk About. These stories were carefully curated to provide opportunities for discussing how kindness can impact our lives and improve the world around us.
So, if you’re looking to improve your outlook, enjoy more energy, or to live life with a greater sense of purpose, then why not practice performing random acts of kindness as you go about your day? When you combine these actions with stories and conversations about kindness with kids, you can significantly multiply the impact of these simple actions.
The Science of Kindness
Heart and Science of Kindness, Harvard Health Blog
Center for Greater Good
National Library for Medicine and Institute of Public Health