When Caroline Flack died on 15th February 2020, her last Instagram post read ‘in a world where you can be anything, be kind’. Her death prompted a social media avalanche of #BeKind posts, many well-meaning, but unfortunately (as is often the case) the original sentiment became skewed along the way. Everyone from politicians to alt right commentators started using #BeKind to avoid accountability or criticism. #BeKind became synonymous with #PositiveVibesOnly, a way of saying ‘I do not want to be exposed to anything that makes me feel uncomfortable or challenges me’ - to avoid being genuinely empathetic - the very antithesis to genuinely being kind.
It’s a great shame, because Caroline was right – There’s enormous value in kindness. It isn’t just some fluffy notion to be flung about the sociosphere for the clout. Done right, kindness has real science behind it…
1. Kindness involves inconveniencing yourself.
Being kind often involves doing the opposite to what would be instinctual, whether that’s resisting the urge to snap at someone because we’re in a bad mood for reasons which have nothing to do with them, or stopping to talk to a person without a home instead of passing them in the street as we rush to our next meeting. Kindness involves having self-awareness and often interferes with our plans.
The psychological benefit to doing these types of kind acts – ones that involve donating our time or giving something away with no obvious, tangible reward – is called ‘helpers high’. Humans are tribal animals. We have evolved in such a way as to ensure that we can rely on one another, thus ensuring our survival. Therefore, when we do something helpful for others, our brain sends signals to release endorphins – feel-good chemicals. Endorphins not only induce a temporary feeling of euphoria, but in the long-term they have been shown to counteract the impact of stress and anxiety on the brain and body.
Therefore, kindness is one of the most efficient ways to improve your mental fitness.
2. Kindness is going out of your comfort zone.
Mental health campaigns often urge us to ‘just talk’, but the fact is, it isn’t talking in itself which has benefit– it’s connection. The ingredients for connection are to feel as though a person or group of people accepts you unconditionally, understands you and shows genuine interest in you. To foster connection, therefore, we must empathise.
Empathy is more than just hearing what someone is saying. It’s putting our feelings to one side and doing what’s best for the other person. Empathy doesn’t mean always having equivalent experience to measure against, or appropriate advice to give. In fact, empathetic people rarely say ‘I know exactly what you mean because a similar thing happened to me’. They’re far more likely to say ‘That must have been really hard for you. Thank you for telling me. What can I do to help?’.
There’s evidence to show fostering genuine connection in this way stabilises levels of dopamine in the brain, which is essential for wellbeing. In short, if you can be kind enough to put your ego to one side and yourself in someone else’s shoes, you have the power to improve their brain chemistry.
3. Kindness Creates Communities
Belonging is a key human psychological need. Whilst many of us have an online tribe, with socialising limited owing to the pandemic, we’re far less likely to have one in real life.
Small acts of kindness, such as putting a note through a neighbour’s door, or offering to do shopping for an elderly friend or relative helps solidify community, foster a sense of belonging and thus improve mental health.
Has this article inspired you to do an act of kindness? For World Mental Health Day, Grazia has teamed up with the Hub of Hope to create an interactive ‘kindness map’ of the UK. By clicking on your area, you can not only see what mental health support is available nearby, but also pin your act of kindness. Our goal is to get 10,000 kindness pledges by 10th October.