The Kindness Cure

I was on road trip recently with my family and during our travels my daughter peppered me with questions and somewhere in my attempt to answer I was giving examples and telling stories of times past. Times when there weren’t mobile phones, computers, or social media; when even calling long-distance was usually cost-prohibitive and as such limited in its use. Telling her how the simple act of sharing photos was usually a social event that involved being invited over for dinner, enjoying a home cooked meal, and then retiring to someone’s living room for a slide show or passing of photos with a personal narrative of the captured images. As I reminisced, I thought about what Piero Ferrucci, a psychotherapist and philosopher, calls “global cooling." Whereas, our relationships have become cold, distant, hurried, and impersonal; and the drive for profit and efficiency is pursued at the expense of human warmth and genuine presence leading to an “ice age of the heart." The cure, the antidote, to this ice age of humanity – KINDNESS.

Kindness is so much more than being nice or polite. It’s an expression of care, concern, warmth and/or generosity with nothing expected in return. It also transcends religions, indigenous groups, and time. For example, Hinduism has many deities with loving kindness being one of the most prominent qualities of the gods. In Judaism, kindness is considered to be one of the distinguishing characteristics of a Jew. In Christianity, St. Paul lists kindness as one of the nine traits considered to be the fruits of the Spirit. Islam places value on neighborly kindness. Whereas, some African tribes have lived by the philosophy of Ubuntu, a quality that includes the essential human virtues: compassion and humanity. An Anthropologist learned this first hand when he put a basket of fruit under a tree and told some African children that the first to reach the basket would win all the fruit. In response, the children joined hands and all ran together collecting the fruit as a group – this is an example of Ubuntu.

Kindness is kind to our body too. It's linked to better mental health, improved life satisfaction, and stronger relationships, thereby having the potential to make us happier and healthier. Moreover, oxytocin, often referred to as the love hormone, is also known as the kindness molecule because it makes people more generous and trusting. It also improves digestion, reduces inflammation, speeds up healing, slows down aging, and lowers blood pressure. And if you’ve ever gotten a lump in your throat when feeling emotionally moved, you’ve felt your vagus nerve at work. This critical nerve helps to stimulate the compassion system in our body and links to the nerves that tune into the speech of others, coordinates eye contact, and regulates emotional expression. Not surprising, studies have shown that higher ‘vagal tone’ is associated with greater closeness with others, more altruistic behavior, and resilience. Conversely, low vagal tone has been linked to inflammation, negative moods, loneliness, and heart attacks. In addition, people with low vagal tone become inwardly focused and preoccupied with personal pain making it much harder to show compassion to others. Deep breathing, yoga, and aerobic activity all stimulates healthy vagal tone.

The way we think influences the way we feel and thus how we react to different situations. Yet sometimes we can’t switch off our negative thoughts or stop ourselves from worrying (thinking about what may happen) and ruminating (thinking about what has happened repeatedly). To combat this, we turn to mindfulness, which cultivates a conscious intent that can convert judgmental thoughts or self-criticism into kindness and compassion for ourselves, as well as others. With practice and commitment, we have the capability to shift our well-worn thinking patterns to new ones that are more positive and constructive. As a starting point, try to notice when you’ve started to worry, ruminate, or have judgmental thoughts. Just the act of noticing builds mindfulness. If you want to take it a step further, you can begin to notice how you feel when you have these thoughts. Do you have tension in your jaw or shoulders, does the thought cause you to you feel sad, ashamed, or angry or make you want to engage in a certain behavior (TV watching, drinking, eat when you’re not hungry)? Connecting these thoughts to your emotions, body sensations, and behaviors can lead to insight and power changes in our lives.

One final practice I'll leave you with is a loving kindness meditation, which can be very helpful in cultivating loving kindness for yourself and others. If you’ve never tried it, I encourage you to try one. For connivence sake, I’ve embedded one below - it’s about 7min long.

Kind hearts are the gardens,

Kind thoughts are the roots,

Kind words are the flowers,

Kind deeds are the fruits.

Take care of your garden

And keep out of the weeds,

Fill it with sunshine,

Kind words and kind deeds.

Poem by: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Coaching Corner

  • What’s one thing you can do today that’s kind?

  • How compassionate and kind are your thoughts about yourself?

  • What are some ways you could cultivate kindness and compassion in your daily routine?