Kindness is a word that means something simple: good intentions toward living beings, including oneself.
This goodwill is present in warmth, friendliness, compassion, ordinary decency, fair play, altruism, generosity, and love. The kind heart leans toward others; it is not neutral or indifferent. Kindness is the opposite of ill will, coldness, prejudice, cruelty, and aggression. We’ve all been kind, we all know what it’s like to wish someone well.
Kindness is widely praised—from parents telling children to share their toys to saints preaching the Golden Rule—because it has so many benefits:
- Kindness toward oneself is needed to fulfill our three fundamental needs: to avoid harm, approach rewards, and attach to others. When these needs are met, your brain shifts into its responsive mode, in which the body repairs and refuels itself. You feel peaceful, happy, and loving.
- Kindness toward others reduces quarrels, builds trust, and is the best-odds strategy to get good treatment in return.
- Kindness within and between nations promotes the rule of law, educates children, feeds the hungry, supports human rights, offers humanitarian aid, and works for peace. Kindness toward our planet tries to protect endangered species and reduce global warming.
Of course, this is just a partial list of benefits. Bottom line, benevolence is good for individuals, relationships, nations, and the world as a whole.
The fact that benevolence is often enlightened self-interest makes it no less warm-hearted and virtuous. And at this time in history when individuals feel increasingly stressed and isolated, when relationships often stand on shaky ground, when international conflicts are fueled by dwindling resources and increasingly lethal weapons, and when humanity is dumping over nine billions tons of carbon each year into the atmosphere (like throwing 5 billion cars a year up into the sky, most of which stay there)—kindness is not just moral, it’s essential.
But easier said than done.
How can we sustain kindness in ourselves and in our relationships, nations, and world?
- Know what kindness feels like in your body, heart, and mind: Bring to mind a sense of warmth and good wishes toward someone. How does this feel? Try on other kinds of benevolence, and toward other beings, to sense what these are like as well.
- Realize that kindness is natural and normal: In the media, we are so bombarded with words and images of anti-benevolence that you can start to think that ordinary decency and kindness are somehow exotic. But in fact, as we evolved, our ancestors stayed alive and passed on their genes by caring about themselves and others. And given the gratitude and reverence for nature commonly found in hunter-gatherer bands today, they likely also cared about the world upon which they depended.
- Take care of yourself: When your core needs are met—when you’re not stressed by threat, loss, or rejection—the brain defaults to its resting state, its home base. From this home base, most people are fair-minded, empathic, cooperative, compassionate, and benevolent: in a word, kind. While it’s possible to sustain goodwill in a state of fear, frustration, or loneliness, it is sure a lot harder. An undisturbed, healthy brain is a kind one.
- Take a stand for kindness: Establish your intentions formally—perhaps at the start of the day or during a contemplative practice or at a meal—to wish yourself and all other beings well. In challenging situations, take care of your needs while also asking yourself, “How could I be benevolent here? How could I restrain any destructive thoughts, words, or deeds? Can I wish for the welfare of others? Can I express compassion and kindness?”
- Step out of your comfort zone: Not doing anything foolish, consider how you could stretch a bit (or more) in your good intentions toward others. For example, seeing people you don’t know, try wishing them well. Or with someone who’s irritating, try looking past the surface to sense this person’s own stress and worries; without waiving your rights, can you find more patience, can you let go of recrimination or payback? Or could you extend yourself with friends or family, maybe doing more dishes or giving someone a ride? In the larger world, consider volunteering some time or giving more to a charity.
- Last, appreciate some of the kindness that buoys you along: We’ve all been nurtured and protected by friends and family, humanity altogether, and the biosphere. In some sense, there’s an exuberant kindness in the physical universe itself; consider that most of the atoms in your body—any that are heavier than helium—were born inside an exploding star. Afloat in these gifts, who could not be kind?