“It's a little embarrassing that after 45 years of research & study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder to each other.” Aldous Huxley
A few weeks back a small commotion commenced at the small town post office in Cashmere. A woman seemed embarrassed and perplexed. The credit card machine was not accepting her card. She needed to send a package. The package contained medicine her husband had forgotten as he rushed to catch a plane.
Several people started worriedly murmuring to each other. I ran outside to get my purse out of the car. By the time I came back inside, the woman was leaving. As it turned out one of the postal workers had gone in the back room and gotten her own purse and paid for the lady’s package.
“You can’t do that,” I said, disbelief in my voice.
“I just did, “the postal worker swiftly replied as she scurried on processing others’ transactions.
Perhaps you, like me, have seen all sorts of acts of selfless kindness – some big, some small, some random, some planned. And you’ve wondered. How is that we “selfish brutes” are having these sorts of glitches in our programming?
Let me propose an idea. Perhaps it isn’t a species malfunctioning at all. Maybe we human beings are wired to feel compassion and care for others. We may be, as one researcher claims, born to be good.
Darwin himself suggested it. In fact, he proposed that those highest in sympathy, the nurturers, were best suited for collective human survival. From an evolutionary standpoint, doing kind acts for others may be exactly what nature has rigged us for.
Evolution can be a controversial topic, I bring it up only because Darwin’s thinking is often mistakenly used to prop up what may be false all-about-me notions of human nature. Look at other evidence.
From physiological and psychological perspective, it seems that kindness is a very good thing. Not just for the recipient of a kindness, we get happier just watching someone else be kind.
If we are the ones being kind, here’s what happens to us. We get surges of good-feeling chemicals. We feel less anxious. Our shyness recedes and our confidence grows. Our heart rate and blood pressure go down. We feel happier. Others find us more attractive and seek us out as friends and mates.
Kindness and compassion are also quite good for our communities. Kind communities not only feel good to their inhabitants, as places of high trust; but also, according to economists, are much more prosperous.
Bottom line. If all of us were a bit more kind and compassionate, we’d get a big bang for our buck out of it. We’d be “better off” and happier, so would everyone else.
Suppose you want to seriously kick up your kindness ... perhaps as a spiritual, good life, or moral stretch, what might you do? Researchers propose two practices to turn up your dial on kindness.
The first practice is called “Five Acts of Kindness.” For six weeks you experiment with doing kind acts one day a week. You reflect on its effect on yourself and others. Researchers recommend doing five acts all in one day, each week.
You plan your five acts of kindness ahead. You might choose Wednesday as the day you will commit to doing kind acts. As you consider what you might do for others you decide:
1) to send a card to someone who is in the hospital
2) to buy your colleague a latte
3) to help a friend shovel their driveway
4) to call your mother, daughter, or old friend
5) to smile at everyone you pass on your walk to work
After your day of kindness, you reflect on what happened. You tell someone or write about what you did. You consider how it felt to you and to others. That’s it. You can engage in this particular practice anytime you want to effectively ramp up your kindness (and good life).
The second exercise might sound strange if you’ve never heard of it or done it before (you can find more details about it on the internet). In most circles it’s called the “Lovingkindness Meditation” (LKM). It’s been found to be quite effective in helping people not only be more compassionate, but also happier - able to do kind acts without feeling emotionally overwhelmed or burnt out, and better able to balance one’s own well-being with the needs of others.
Basically the practice involves sending kind thoughts to yourself and others. I often do it while I’m walking or running; another good time is before going to sleep, but any time is fine. The other people you send these loving thoughts to include a person who is a mentor or friend, a “neutral” person like a grocery clerk, and someone with whom you have a difficult relationship.
The loving thoughts I usually send are: “May you be happy, may you be healthy; may you use your suffering to build your strengths, to become more compassionate, and to help others.”
The LKM can have profound effects. When I have done this with groups of people, someone often cries; they have never sent loving thoughts to themselves. One study showed that a SINGLE SEVEN MINUTE loving-kindness meditation made people feel more connected to and positive about both loved ones and total strangers, and more accepting of themselves.
Both these practices (acts of kindness and LKM) take some commitment and time. We don’t have to go big with our kindness or compassion unless we choose. We can start small by paying more attention to others. We could simply muster up a smile and give it away freely.
Sounds easy enough to pay a bit more attention to others, but if you are like me, I can get pretty caught up in my own stuff. Suddenly I’m anxious and lost, not myself. I flounder around desperately thinking about all the books I’ve read, the lectures I’ve heard, as I try to give myself direction for getting back to the good life.
Then I recall the opening quotation, the advice, offered by writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley to just be little kinder. It lifts my spirits, puts spring in my step. I am reminded of what I may be born to do - however I choose to do it that day.
How might we practice a little more kindness and Journey to The Good Life together?