Who never invented some pretext to avoid helping a friend move out? Who never pretended not to see the homeless person begging for some coins on the street? Surely, all we think about is ourselves. Let’s think about the good deeds we did today that were not for our proud little self. Let’s think for a while about everything we said that was mean, without taking time to think about the consequences of our words. Let’s think about the disappointment we caused to all those we deliberately ignored. Are we really heartless beings?
In fact, reality is more complex. The group does not accept kindness as a positive value. To be kind is to be weak. Being kind takes too much time. Still, in this ongoing context of crisis, let’s be kind. It will definitely make us feel much better. Why, you ask? Let’s talk. Let’s ask ourselves the right questions.
Why do we lack empathy?
We live in a world where confessing our feelings is an ordeal. Confiding in somebody, or even saying a compliment, is often unbearable for us. And yet, kindness is innate to humankind. A study conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig shows that children are naturally kind, and thus, from a very young age. If a child under 14 months old sees an adult struggle (for example to open a door if they have objects in their hands), he or she will try and help them. We all know how to be kind, and we know even better when we are not. Whatever our origins, our education, we know how to recognize kind actions: empathy is a universal value, perhaps the most widespread. Unfortunately, its universality is its biggest burden. Paradoxically, it is because it is easy to identify that we manage to keep ourselves from being kind.
Then, why are we so little empathetic, when we know very well how to? It is all a matter of culture. We are afraid of other people’s opinion, afraid of being seen as weak because of our kindness. That is why we withdraw within ourselves and avoid any sign of empathy. Individualism has sadly taken a considerable place in our culture, and empathy has become a sign of weakness. This individualism has been even more anchored in our minds since the apex of capitalism, in which personal success matters a lot more than our neighbors’ success. Kindness no longer finds its place in this competitive state of mind, where judgement has long replaced compassion. Kindness is nothing more than a tool of influence to project a likeable image, and being kind always responds to interested motives. We thus distrust kind people, because we think they are only so in order to fool us.
Neither do we make an effort to go towards other people: opening up to someone is putting yourself at risk. The risk is that the other person might take all your compassion without you getting anything in return. That is why we think it is better not to show any sign of attachment, and that we would better stay alone. We deceive ourselves by thinking that we are independent, forgetting that man cannot live alone. Empathy exists precisely because men need to live within a society to survive. But we created a world which makes us forget about the importance of kindness and worse, presents it as a vice. Restoring the value of kindness within society will not be easy, but it is essential, and the key to our collective happiness.
Kindness is the way to happiness
Because you are afraid of negative judgment, you avoid being nice. You prefer not to show any sign of affection, in order to protect yourself. But you actually hurt yourself. By avoiding to be empathetic, you condemn yourself to sadness. Being kind is not only profitable to the people who surround you, but also to yourself. You will probably answer that this is idealistic or stupid. But you are wrong, because it has been proven: being kind increases your happiness. In a study published in the newspaper Science in 2008, scientists observed that participants felt happier having spent money on gifts to other people rather than for themselves. According to another study led by neuroscientists from the University of Oregon, giving donations to charitable institutions activates the areas in your brain which make you feel happy.
But being kind does not stop at making donations or spending money on good causes. Expressing your gratitude to others increases your well-being. Doctor Martin E. P. Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania asked 411 volunteers to write a thank you letter to someone who was important to them. He then asked them to read the letter aloud to the person. He asked them again every week for 3 months. The result was clear: people felt considerably happier after giving and reading the letter. They were also more optimistic about their future, compared to the control group. Similarly, other studies show that the mere fact of writing every week what we are grateful for considerably increases our happiness.
Kindness is the best remedy to our woes. It is a powerful antidepressant, a drug to which you can become addicted without taking any risk regarding your health. To be kind, you only need to pay attention to the people who surround you, to ask if they had a good day, to take some time to listen to them. Kindness, like solidarity, federates. This universal feeling must regain its due place in our culture.
Are we headed towards an unsympathetic society?
Now that we know we must be kind, the hardest part comes: putting it into practice. Being kind requires standing up against the standards of our time, which encourage us to only think of ourselves. You may think that there is no point being kind when the world around you remains locked in its morbid individualism. And yet, we must overcome other people’s judgment, think about ways to be kinder on a daily basis, but most importantly overturn our society’s values. Let us prove those who only think of themselves wrong, let us show them that we can be kind without getting fooled! By being honest and empathetic, we will be surrounded by much more interesting people who will bring us much more. This may seem an impossible or idealistic task, but it is far from being insurmountable. Kindness is contagious. Good deeds call for more good deeds. And acts of individual kindness turn into acts of collective kindness. In 2016 in Bristol, United Kingdom, a man tied a scarf to a tree with a sign that read: “I was not lost”. During the same winter and the following ones, scarves appeared everywhere in the country, allowing homeless people not to freeze to death. It is not only about being kind to homeless people, because not all of us can afford it: it is just as essential to be kind to the people who surround us, at work or within our family. Think of this article the next time you talk badly to someone. We have everything to gain from being kinder, so let’s be kind !