The Keys to Kindness

There is more kindness than we think there is in the world and we can all find ways to be more kind.

This is a gentle book that sets out to help us understand what kindness is, how we define it in different contexts, what it does for us and how to help make our lives and the world a kinder place. 

Hammond focuses, in her own words, on the micro rather than the macro, but also addresses concerns of a global nature, including whether or not people became kinder during the pandemic. She draws on social and psychological studies, detailing their outcomes to show circumstances in which kindness begets itself or doesn’t. She also looks at philosophy that encompasses a wide range of writers reporting on changes in the behaviour of the social fabric over time.

Being kind is as beneficial to the person giving kindness as the one receiving, if not more. The health benefits and the “glow” from doing a kind thing lasts for longer than expected. Kindness is contagious. Those who experience an act of kindness are more likely to go on and show kindness to another, thus paying it forward.

The connections are good for us, as psychological studies show. None of this is particularly surprising. Families that strive to look at the world from each other’s points of view are happier, partners who ‘feel kindly” towards each other in a relationship are happier and more likely to forgive each other for small grievances, students value their instructors kindness more than their competence.

Is there such a thing as “pure kindness?” Hammond turns to neuroscience to explore possible answers. In one study, she finds that different parts of the brain light up depending on whether an act is selflessly altruistic, or partially self-serving but the takeaway is the brain rewards all acts of kindness, regardless of the intention behind it. 

For example, in one experiment, people were given either five or twenty dollars. Half were told to spend it on themselves whereas the other half were told to spend it on charity or someone else. At the end of the day, those who spent it on someone else reported feeling happier, regardless of the amount they were given. This proves a very prominent point in this book – being kind makes us  feel good and that’s okay. Those who received acts of kindness had higher well-being but those who carried out acts of kindness were also doing better than average. Another thing to note from further studies is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re kind to a person you know or a stranger. Either will result in the same boost of well-being. Still, there is definitely such a thing as overdoing kindness as well to the point of feeling depleted.

Those who are “extraordinary” altruists (like a young man who volunteers to donate his kidney to a stranger) had an amygdala eight percent larger than average. The amygdala helps us understand how others feel. Are they born with this or is it cultivated? It’s a combination of both. Our life experiences influence the size of the amygdala as we grow.

Hammond addresses kindness at work and makes the important distinction between niceness, which can be weaponised, and kindness. There is also the general lack of kindness shown by bosses in the workplace. To offset this, she outlines stories of exceptionally kind bosses that are inspiring to read and makes the major point that it was ultimately good for business.

A primary takeaway is that kindness “comes from seeing other people’s perspectives,” from understanding small situations like a friend forgetting to call you to larger missteps. This is a core tenet of cognitive behavioural therapy. There are exercises and thought experiments that the reader can engage in. Research shows that listening and reading as two powerful tools to develop one’s skills in having empathy for others. 

She entreats us to be kind to ourselves as well. The simplest prescription for kindness is to “try to leave every situation better than when you arrived.” This is a deceptively simple book that covers a broad range of subtopics and makes a powerful and inspiring call for thoughtfully incorporating more kindness into our everyday lives.

Claudia Hammond has also written The Art of Rest.

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