Cool to be kind

We’re always telling our kids to be kinder to one another. Now science is showing us precisely how important that is.

It goes without saying that the world could afford a little more kindness. Spend enough time reading the news and browsing the internet and it becomes easy to believe that we’re a species marked by our selfishness and mistrust. Yet a growing body of evidence is showing not only that our capacity for altruism is one of humanity’s most defining traits, but also that being kind and compassionate is actually good for our physical and mental wellbeing. 

“It all comes down to our mammalian origins,” explains James Kirby, a research psychologist who founded the University of Queensland’s Compassionate Mind Research Group. “Our parental investment strategy is to have a small number of children that we spend an incredibly long time raising.” The helplessness of our children—an evolutionary price we pay for our oversized brains—means that we have a “caregiving motive”. “When we hear our baby cry because they perceive a threat, we move towards that threat in order to regulate it or make the baby feel at ease.” 

Compassion, he explains, is a natural extension of this phenomenon. As we evolved to take ever greater care of our children, our brains designed reward mechanisms that promoted prosocial behaviours, not only within but also outside the family unit. “Our brains have these terrific abilities that you just don’t really see in other animals,” says Kirby. “The ability to think about others, to think about the future, to look at things from someone else’s perspective. That’s what allows us to act to make people’s lives better.” Not only people: our capacity for compassion can also be activated by animals and nature. “We have the capacity to be the most compassionate beings on the planet,” says Kirby.

Unfortunately, our compassionate instincts also have their antimatter: competition. “If you’re highly competitive and you only see things as win or lose, then you can start to turn off your compassionate tendencies,” says Kirby. Competitiveness is something that speaks to our more animalistic side. If evolution is the story of different gene sets battling over scarce resources, then our capacity for kindness is often limited by a fear that it will leave us exposed or at risk. It’s why we become less likely to offer compassion the further the person in need is from our recognised tribe—we can’t guarantee that they won’t exploit our vulnerability.

Yet this is also why it’s important to try and foster the compassionate drive in our kids, which is apparent from a remarkably early age. Experiments have shown that children as young as eighteen months show an inclination to help adults who are struggling with a task, while even newborns will spend more time looking at images of people being helpful, rather than at people being mean. “It basically shows that we have this tendency towards helping people and prosocial behaviour built in from the very start,” says Kirby.

Children will naturally gravitate towards kind and altruistic people, says Kirby, and will be inclined to try and replicate their behaviour. However, this can also be turned off. In one of the studies Kirby and his team have conducted, they showed that when a reward mechanism was introduced into an interaction between two four-year-olds, the children became markedly less likely to share, even when their partner in the experiment was showing significant levels of distress. It comes back to competition, Kirby explains. “When you put children in these competitive contests, it starts to become more about what I need to get or what I might lose, as opposed to focusing on the other person and trying to be helpful.”

Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist who founded the organisation Making Caring Common, has offered five strategies that parents can follow to help the spirit of kindness grow in their children: prioritise caring for others in your day-to-day conversations; provide opportunities for your children to practise kindness and gratitude; encourage them to think about people outside their immediate circle; teach them to manage negative emotions; and, of course, practise what you preach.

But while parental interventions and the cultivation of a non-competitive family environment are key, Kirby believes one of the other important battlegrounds is the classroom. “There are questions that parents should be asking of their child’s school: What are the social values of the classroom? Do we help each other when we need it? Are these values being consistently focused on and reinforced?” Kirby points to one American study that asked 10,000 teenagers to rank whether their parents saw achievement or caring as a more important trait. “Eighty per cent said that achievement was most important. What it shows is that while we might be saying caring is really important, that’s not what our kids are hearing at school, or in the broader culture.”

The stakes are not exactly small. In the face of an epidemic of adolescent depression, stress and anxiety, engaging in prosocial behaviour is one of the most reliable ways we know of reducing these symptoms. “Teenagers say that after they’ve engaged in compassionate behaviour, not only do they feel a reduction in stress,” says Kirby, “but they also report a greater sense of overall wellbeing.” As an intrinsically connective act, showing kindness has the corollary effect of helping us solidify our own sense of self and our place within the social context—or, to put it more simply, these acts offer our life meaning. Interestingly, Kirby’s own research has shown that the effect on wellbeing is more pronounced when participants engage in more personally challenging or confronting compassionate activities. “We often think the things that bring about wellbeing have to be positive,” says Kirby, “but we’re finding that’s not necessarily true.”

The reason why showing kindness to others can have such a profound effect upon our own wellbeing is that these moments of prosocial connection trigger a chemical reaction in our brain that not only reduces our cortisol levels—the so-called stress hormone—but also releases oxytocin, the hormone responsible for the bonding effects between a mother and her child. The effects ripple beyond the merely emotional. People who engage in kind behaviours have lower blood pressure and report fewer aches and pains. In a study of people aged over fifty-five, it was shown that volunteering for two or more organisations reduced the chances of early death by 44 per cent, a more significant effect than exercising four times a week. Grandparents who regularly babysit their grandchildren are likely to live for five years longer than those who don’t.

Kindness has lessons for us all. The pioneering relationship psychologist John Gottman has shown that the key predictor for whether a relationship will break up is the ratio of kind to unkind gestures made by each member of the couple. (His model claims a 94 per cent accuracy in predicting break-ups.) It’s important to not only express kindness to your partner, but also accept their acts of kindness in return. Studies have consistently shown that the more someone receives kindness, the more likely they are to show kindness in return. By contrast, people in unhappy relationships, where their systems are likely to be permanently fired up on cortisol, are more prone to depression, anxiety and even contracting viruses and cancer. Again, it’s a question of connection: are you offering compassion to your partner, or are you engaged in competition with them?

But whatever the context, the key to unlocking the benefit of kindness, says Kirby, is that it has to involve actual human contact. “There was a great study done with mothers and teenagers, where the teenager would experience some kind of setback and the mother would respond with either a text message or a voicemail,” he tells me. The participants who received the voicemail reported feeling significantly calmer and more able to respond positively to the setback than those who only read a text. “It showed that it’s the voice of our mothers that we respond to, not merely the sentiment.”

According to Kirby, the easiest way to cultivate your own kindness is by, well, being kind. “It’s like exercising,” says Kirby. “If you stop running, you’re gonna find it very difficult to run a marathon, but if you keep running you’re able to keep your fitness up. The same applies with being kind and compassionate. You need to keep at it as a healthy habit in order for it to ripple out and define your interactions with others.”

First, though, we just need to overcome our innate resistances. “I think the number one barrier towards compassion is that people see it as a self-indulgence, or as showing weakness,” says Kirby. “Yet in engaging with the suffering of others, the things that reveal injustice or that make you angry, you’re actually showing great strength and courage. That’s the perception we’d like to change.”

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This story is from Issue 16. Want more? Like how to talk to kids about climate change? Or how to zero waste your home? Order back issues from our Shop here