Today is World Kindness Day. It started in 1998 with the World Kindness Movement. The purpose of World Kindness Day is, according the the World Kindness Movement website, is: to look beyond ourselves, beyond the boundaries of our country, beyond our culture, our race, our religion; and realise we are citizens of the world. As world citizens we have a commonality, and must realise that if progress is to be made in human relations and endeavours, if we are to achieve the goal of peaceful coexistence, we must focus on what we have in common.
According to Dr David Hamilton, author of Why Kindness is Good For You, kindness can have physical benefits, as well as emotional benefits. When a purpose performs an act of kindness, the brain produces various chemicals which act as nature’s morphine, hence the term ‘helper’s high’. It’s not just these feel good effects that take place. The nervous system and cardio vascular system both relax, blood pressure reduces. Being kind is actually good for your health.
Aside from the benefits to you, the obvious benefit to being kind is the help you have given someone else. Acts of kindness, small and large, can make a difference to someone’s life, acts that may be remembered for ever.
But unasked acts of kindness may not always have the desired effect on the people they are aimed at. Oliver Burkeman, in his book Help, discusses the idea of RAKs, or Random Acts of Kindness. Such acts that are encouraged by the RAK movement are paying the tab of the person behind you in a shop or restaurant, or leaving a bag of groceries on a neighbour’s doorstep. But Burkeman suggests that while the giver may be suffused with warmth at their act of generosity, the receiver is often left with feelings of hostility. Studies suggest that receivers of random acts of kindness feel a sense of indebtedness which troubles them. This is keenly exploited by companies offering free gifts. Some companies offer gifts with a purchase, because it sweetens the deal. Some companies give you a free gift before you even make a purchase, stands at trade shows, charities sending pens and address labels through the post, because once you have that ‘gift’ in your hands you feel a sense of debt towards the company, nudging you into making an order or a donation.
Talking of charities, another controversial act of kindness is Operation Christmas Child, a charity which collects and distributes boxes filled with goodies for ‘deprived’ children for Christmas, lovingly donated by schools, Brownie packs and church groups. However, the gifts come with an added extra, a Christian evangelical booklet and an invitation to a 12 lesson discipleship programme, which I am sure they really appreciate in countries where the main religion is Hinduism or Islam. One Mumsnetter was bemused when her daughter in a middle class Private Day Nursery in Bosnia received an OCC box one Christmas. That’s not to mention the cost, both financial and environmental, of shipping shoeboxes full of plastic goods, made in China and India, from the UK, back to China and India, probably to the children making such goods in the first place. There is a reason why the large charities such as Red Cross and Save the Children don’t operate similar schemes. They know that the money is better targeted into local community projects with lasting benefits. But such altruism isn’t quite as fun, and doesn’t make parents and school children feel quite so warm and cosy inside does it? Nor does it give Samaritan’s Purse, the charity behind Operation Christmas Child, the opportunity to feel good about itself for spreading the word of God.
Don’t get me wrong, my point isn’t not to do acts of kindness. And I think true altruism, where there is absolutely nothing to be gained for the giver, is very rare, and that’s ok. It doesn’t matter if you feel good about being good. But think about where you target your kindness. The randomness some acts of kindness that unsettles people, and if they think there is an agenda behind it they will be left with a feeling of discomfort. I also think kindness involving money or goods is often ill advised, especially in relationships that aren’t that close. It creates a power imbalance, can feel patronising, and may make the receiver feel in a debt that they can’t repay. On the other hand, there are acts of kindness that cost nothing but time, or a little emotional energy. You can’t put a price on them, and that is probably a good thing.
It’s those acts of kindness that really make a difference, that stay with you. For me, it’s the countless people who have helped me up and down stairs with the pushchair. The shop assistant in Lush who gave my daughter a bath bomb. My friend’s husband taking my eldest daughter out for a few hours when I had a newborn and I was struggling. My husband bringing me home a book from the library that he thought I’d like. My mum insisting that I take all my washing for her to do when I visit, despite the fact that I am 30 and own my own washing machine and tumble drier. The cars that let me out of the junction in the morning so I am not waiting forever to get to work. The man working in the Sainsbury’s car park who replaced the pot of yoghurt that fell out of my overloaded trolley. The pharmacy assistant in Boots, who refused to sell me any sleeping tablets when I was heavily pregnant and suffering from insomnia, but hugged and comforted me as I sobbed on her shoulder.
Perform your own act of kindness on World Kindness Day. But when you do, make sure it is mostly about the receiver and what is right for them. It may not always be what is right for you, but you’ll still have the health benefits!
Let me know if any acts of kindness have stayed with you, or your good ideas for simple, free and useful acts of kindness.