The Kindness Principle

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We are living in stressful times. There is so much talk on social media which instigates even apolitical people to take sides. Then there are acts of terrorism, videos of vandalism, true or fake, which whip up emotion. Everyone is enticed to have an opinion and stick to that opinion vociferously. We keep arguing till the other side loses interest. The other side will not give up, ever, either.

In our interactions with people I have always wondered why is it that we always try to establish our superiority, even to the point of hurting the other person. The centuries before us have seen so much suffering, people hurting, maiming, displacing families for the simple reason that they were in a position of power and they could get away with it. A part of that cruelty continues to this day.

People are harsh to staff, especially those at the lower rungs, people who work for them, keeping their home and hearth clean and their gardens neat.  A word uttered in kindness goes a long way in ensuring loyalty and happiness of employers and employees alike. Studies on compassionate leadership have thrown up interesting, but predictable outcomes. The conclusion comes as no surprise – a more compassionate leader is a more successful one.

In one of the studies, published last year in the Journal of Social Psychology, researchers in Great Britain found that the groups that practiced kindness experienced a significant boost in happiness, the group that did not practise kindness didn’t get any happier. The findings suggest that good deeds do in fact make people feel good—even when performed over as little as 10 days. But kindness may have a longer, even more profound effect on our happiness, according to the second study, published online in the Journal of Happiness Studies in April and conducted by researchers at Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia. This study suggested a kind of “positive feedback loop” between kindness and happiness, according to the authors, so that one encourages the other.

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All studies on the subject have always confirmed that in order to stay healthy, both physically, mentally and I would go so far as to say emotionally, strong relationships are very important, as important as getting a grip over factors which are known to be detrimental to health such as smoking and obesity. A new study published in Psychological Science (Happy people become happier through kindness: a counting kindnesses intervention) suggests that the reason why social support translates into measurable physical benefits such as lower blood pressure, healthier weights and other such measures of good health, is more physiological than imagined so far. It appears that the reason why this happens is that the vagus nerve, which connects social contact to the positive emotions that can flow from such interactions, makes you feel good when you are kind to others.

A lot of behavioural researchers are trying to decode happiness. One very significant factor for maintaining good health, our own happiness and those of others, is to be kind. Kindness should be practised like one would practise yoga or meditation for our good health. This is a timely reminder that the scientists have given us. In these days of virulent anger and vicious greed, it is good to remember that in being kind to others, we are being kind to ourselves.

Archana Ranjan