If mindfulness teaches us to be gentle with ourselves, ‘kindfulness’ is all about directing that energy at others. Here, Catherine Gray investigates how compassion became cool.
Today, my commute started with a sign saying ‘Smiles are contagious, so keep smiling’ (and I didn’t even eye-roll). I then listened to a meditation app that encouraged me to direct rays of ‘may you be happy’ sunshine at random passengers. I lunched with my friend Harriet, who is devoting her Saturdays to helping teenagers prepare for job interviews (a few years back, Harriet would spend Saturdays in bed).
I liked an image on Instagram of a ‘Take a coat if you’re cold’ donation rack. I shared a ‘Kindness. It doesn’t cost a damn thing. Sprinkle that sh*t everywhere’ meme – the same meme that, in 2014, I would have snarled at it. What’s happened to me? What’s happened to all of us?!
Kindfulness is 2018’s mindfulness, we’re told, with the pioneer of the trend – a British Buddhist monk by the name of Ajahn Brahm – giving talks at Google and Facebook’s offices, with a slew of books on the horizon. With mindfulness, we’re taught to be softer and kinder to ourselves, whereas kindfulness is about turning this inside-out and directing it at others and the world at large.
There are countless examples of people, individually and collectively, trying to bring a little kindness into other people’s lives. At last week’s annual worldwide Random Acts of Kindness Week, kids were given ‘compliment card’ school projects and people were urged to become ‘Raktivists’ (Random Act of Kindness activists) by tucking ‘Great parking!’ notes under windscreen wipers, leaving money in vending machines or giving a stranger caught in a downpour your umbrella.
Trolling is down, ‘kind-ing’ is up. Katie Hopkins finally lost her MailOnline job while President Trump’s approval rating is at an all-time nadir. Today, being mean doesn’t pay. The philosopher Alain de Botton called the trend, “The long march of kindness” adding, “We have become more and more sensitive to, and concerned about, the suffering of others.”
This month, research by Travelodge found that a third of Brits now do something randomly kind every day, and more than half of us (54%) believe there is still goodness in the world. Last year, the British Heart Foundation saw a 61% increase in donations for its Pack for Good scheme, blood-cancer charity Anthony Nolan reported an 83% increase in registering to donate for stem-cell research, and Cats Protection saw a 38% rise in volunteers.
Experts believe this ‘kind renaissance’ is a response to the ‘nuclear winter is nigh!’ news cycle. The fire and fury of Trump, the watch-through-your-fingers, slo-mo car-crash of Brexit, the necessary yet wearing #MeToo scandals, increasing homelessness, the growing need for food banks.
“It’s an ‘enough is enough’ response to the fear- and hate-driven messages we’re receiving,” says Bernadette Russell, author of The Little Book Of Kindness.
Given that people feel disempowered on a ‘big-picture’ level, they’re pitching in on a localised level, she says. “I can’t broker peace in the Middle East or stop the ice caps melting, but I can do something in the everyday world that I occupy.”
She adds that the news can exacerbate feelings of powerlessness, “given they report on the hurricane but not what you can do about it”, and recommends alternative news outlets Good News Network and Positive News for actionable advice.
One key factor at play here is how we’re now seeking satisfaction in our lives through volunteering efforts – looking for meaningful connections with the outside world. The Girls’ Network, winner of last year’s Prix Clarins award in collaboration with Stylist, is a non-profit organisation that connects girls from the least advantaged communities with a network of positive female role models.
“Volunteers tell us how building up another person’s self-confidence has had a hugely positive impact on them, themselves,” says co-founder Becca Dean.
Other experts think the rise of kindfulness has grown out of the self-care revolution.
“When your cup is full, you’re so much more generous and giving,” says Shahroo Izadi, a behavioural change psychologist and author of The Kindness Method (due out in June). “One of my clients swears that spending just two minutes extra in the shower to enjoy the hot water pounding down upon her makes her more patient for the rest of the day.”
When we’re kinder to ourselves, we’re kinder to others, she says. Now that self-care is not seen as selfish, but as essential human maintenance, we’re beginning to radiate that care outwards.
Interestingly, we’re also built to be kind, rather than mean. Kindness has been genetically hard-wired within us for 500 million years, says Dr David R Hamilton, author of The Five Side Effects Of Kindness. He says ‘survival of the fittest’ should be re-angled as ‘survival of the kindest’.
“Our ancestors thrived by working as communities. It wasn’t the strongest or fastest who survived – it was those who could work well with others. Study after study has overturned the idea that ‘nice people finish last’ in business.”
The physical benefits of a warm and fuzzy outlook are dizzying. For a start, ‘helpers’ have been found to have 23% less of stress hormone cortisol in their systems.
“We see something called a ‘helper’s high’ whereby a cascade of dopamine and opioids – the brain’s natural version of morphine – are released,” says Dr Hamilton. “Kindness is like a drug with no hangover or comedown. It lowers blood pressure, while kind people experience much less hardening of the arteries. It actually has an anti-ageing effect. Oxytocin is something you can’t eat, drink or put in a face cream, but being kind creates it internally.”
Does this mean the future looks bright, rather than bleak?
“I think we’ll see a widespread realisation that community and working together are the solutions to all of our problems,” says Dr Hamilton. “There’ll be more research into the physical bonuses and ‘ripple effect’ of kindness,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Russell points to the River Thames as a great example of kindness helping the planet. “In the Seventies it was environmentally dead, but now it’s become eco-diverse as a result of volunteer clean-ups.”
This welcome shift is even starting to counter the shallowness of ‘hot or not’ Tindering. A study of 10,000 20-somethings worldwide found that kindness now outshines good looks when looking for a suitor.
And this kindness revolution feels more The Hunger Games than The Good Life. In today’s wall-building, benefit-slashing, ‘mine, not sharing’ political climate, it feels like a daring act to give something away with no hope of tit-for-tat. To open our hands and give, rather than close them and grasp. A rebellious act, almost.
We used to see kind acts as taking coins from a treasure chest inside us that we wanted to keep for loved ones, rather than give to strangers. But now, we’re starting to see ‘kindfulness’ as a sure-fire investment with exponential returns. I’m in. Are you?
For the second year, Stylist and Clarins are celebrating women in charitable endeavours. To find out how you could win a bespoke mentoring programme and £30,000 for your not-for-profit project, click here.
Images: Katy Belcher / Unsplash / Rex Features / Pexels / Pixabay