Kindness wasn’t part of my dissertation that I completed recently as part of my degree in Applied Positive Psychology. The dissertation focused on people who had divorced over the age of 50 and had rebuilt their lives through social groups. The focus was on hope, as this group of people had lost almost everything through their divorce; they had lost their life partner, their children had grown up and were no longer dependent upon them and for various reasons many of their friends had deserted them. I conducted a series of nine interviews with people who fit the criteria and it did clearly show an increase in hope. What struck me whilst conducting the interviews was how people changed when they talked about how they had helped others in the group. They seemed to feel an intense amount of pride in themselves for having helped another person. It seems that many of the people joined or started a social group to better their own life and yet within a very short space of time were more concerned with the welfare of others who had joined the group.
An example of this was the lady who joined a fitness group because she felt she was a little overweight and unfit so needed a way to regain her vigour. However, after a few months her reasons for being in the group had changed. Whilst she was feeling a lot fitter and healthier her motivation for being in the group had changed completely to someone who wanted to help others achieve their goal.
Book of Joy
I recently bought a copy of the “Book of Joy” which chronicled a meeting between the Archbishop Tutu and His Holiness Dalai Lama. Although from different cultural backgrounds they both agreed on a number of things. The first was the concept of Joy. They described this as the ultimate form of happiness where life was lived at its absolute best. They also both agreed that this could only be accomplished through kindness and compassion to others.
They argued quite strongly that what we often consider as providing us happiness through material gain actually causes suffering though anxiety and reclusiveness. They provide examples of people who have amassed great wealth only to live quite miserable lives. In contrast they talk about examples of people who have very little but lead interesting and satisfying lives by practicing kindness and compassion.
My study seemed to back this up. I can’t recall anyone I spoke to talk about material wealth or status. The main emphasis was on how they related to others. Being around people and helping people through any particular issue they were having seemed to motivate them to do more within the group. They were quite proud of the fact that there was a very diverse mix within the groups and people could mix freely and enjoy each other’s company.
I decided to look back at the transcripts of my interviews for my dissertation and discovered just how much I had missed. There seemed to be a very strong emphasis on kindness ad furthermore the happier an individual claimed to be the more they talked about their kind acts. One of the reasons I didn’t pick this up is that it didn’t come across as a boast it just seemed perfectly natural to them.
Some of the comments I got were; “If someone was nervous about joining the group, I would go outside to meet them”, “We would all help a new member who seemed to be struggling”, “ It was a real thrill to see someone I introduced to the group, starting to host events”.
Kindness just seemed to come naturally, it wasn’t forced, there wasn’t a procedure to follow they just performed kind acts.
Where do we go from here?
The study I did was not based around kindness and such a small sample of people cannot be used as evidence to back up my claims. However, there is growing evidence to support the notion that kindness does improve our overall well-being. Evidence suggests that being kind helps our immune system, increases our levels of Oxytocin, helps pain reduction and even helps us to live longer. According to the Dalai Lama, kindness is our default nature, we function better when we are kind to others.
We currently live in a society that has growing problems of homelessness, child poverty, anxiety, and depression. If ever there was a time to study and practice kindness it surely has to be now. Kindness is in our nature, it’s natural for us to be kind, and best of all it makes us feel better.