Take a moment to think about the nicest thing someone has ever done for you. Go ahead, close your eyes, flip back through the pages of your memory. What acts of kindness stand out? Were they big or small? Were they from a stranger or a loved one?
A few moments flash through my mind like snapshots. Once, an anonymous stranger paid our tab while I was on a date at a nice restaurant. It happened to be my birthday, though there had been nothing to indicate it. Another time, an octogenarian woman picked me up while I was hitchhiking and drove two hours out of her way to take me to my destination. She even insisted on buying me snacks when we stopped at the store to buy food for her cat. Then there were the times that I dropped my wallet on the ground or left my debit card at the ATM only to have strangers run after me to return it.
We’ve all been the recipients of acts of kindness, and we’ve all been the givers, too. The beauty of kindness is that not only is it an unlimited resource, an act of kindness has the power to generate more of it, inspiring others to pay it forward in ways both big and small.
Today (Friday) is World Kindness Day, and it couldn’t come at a better time. In a nation bitterly divided in the aftermath of an acrimonious presidential election, we’re either busy licking our wounds or celebrating with like-minded peers, casting aspersions on those we perceive as morally bankrupt. Yet we are all humans, trying to scratch out a contented existence on the same blue dot floating through space together. As the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“Kindness is universal and doesn’t take a side,” said Brooke Jones, vice president of the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. “Everyone knows what it feels like to receive it and to give it. It is one of the purest things we can offer each other. It is simple, free and healing. There is a lot of healing to do in this country, and around the world, right now. The easiest way to do that is by practicing kindness. This means listening without judgment, offering empathy, being generous of spirit and forgiving old grudges.”
While people known for their kindness are sometimes called “selfless,” that’s a bit of a misnomer. Acts of kindness not only create powerful positive feelings in the recipient, but also the giver. Research has shown that even simply witnessing a kind act creates the same physiological reaction in the body.
“They all get a boost in dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin,” said Jones. “They have a decrease in cortisol — the stress hormone — as well.”
Perhaps, given the stress of election politics, social strife and a global pandemic, you’ve been feeling the weight of the world, but that, too, can be eased by intentionally engaging in kind actions.
Lindsay Wright, a behavioral health specialist at the Telluride Regional Medical Center, noted that research has linked engaging in kindness and compassion to numerous health benefits both mental and physical.
“Practicing acts of kindness can help to decrease stress, feelings of depression, anger and anxiety, and can even help with physical pain management and give our immune systems a boost,” she said. “Keep in mind that our brains are not separate from our bodies, so anything that alleviates stress can also help with any physical concern that may be exacerbated by feelings of worry and tension.”
On a community scale, even small acts of kindness can have invisible ripple effects, creating greater feelings of connection and gratitude while diminishing isolation and perceptions of difference.
“In practicing kindness, we get to experience satisfaction in the fact that we are working to create a more compassionate and empathetic world, which can be really empowering,” Wright said.
Most of us have the desire to participate in more acts of kindness, but sometimes feel stumped, uncertain what’s meaningful or how to engage in ways that don’t involve spending money. While buying gifts or donating to good causes certainly offers ways to engage, it’s not the only way.
“I love telling someone they have a great smile or laugh,” said Jones. “Almost always you’ll make someone feel better about themselves and put an even bigger smile on their face.”
Kindness, she said, is a habit. Like a muscle, it becomes strengthened with use. The more we use it, the more we’ll remember to use it, until our intentional kindness becomes “just part of the fabric of who we are.”
“There are countless ways to practice kindness, we just need to keep an eye out for moments that you can put others before yourself,” said Wright. “If you witness someone needing help, offer it.”
Other simple yet meaningful acts include offering someone a genuine compliment, performing chores for the household, making a thoughtful gift for a loved one or checking in with a friend who may be going through a hard time. Community-based kindness might include donating to the food bank or local causes, or signing up for volunteer opportunities.
“Tune in to opportunities to be kind on World Kindness Day,” suggested Jones. “Go out of your way to do something slightly outside of your comfort zone. Perhaps bake something yummy for an elderly neighbor or tip a little extra when you’re at a restaurant and leave a note of gratitude.”
Wherever you find yourself reading this right now, look up. What or who do you see? How might you inject a little bit of extra kindness into the world today? Go on, do it. I dare you.