Lori Anderson: Be kind to another and you will be good to yourself

Like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, played here by Vivien Leigh, we have all at some point depended on the kindness of strangers. Picture: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, played here by Vivien Leigh, we have all at some point depended on the kindness of strangers. Picture: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

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Many years ago when my father died, I flew home alone and was comforted not just by the stewardesses who kept me in tissues but by the woman sitting next to me who gently rubbed my back and squeezed my hand when the tears broke through the dam of my British stiff upper lip. Like Blanche DuBois, in Tennessee William’s play, A Streetcar Named Desire, we have all, at some point, “depended on the kindness of strangers”. I recalled the incident, which took place on a British Airways flight from California, when reading about a recent survey on kindness that revealed how a high percentage of people said they were more likely to perform a kind act on holiday or while travelling than at home. Perhaps this is because while on the road we are all forced out of our comfort zones and find ourselves shoulder to shoulder with strangers in need.

Many years ago when my father died, I flew home alone and was comforted not just by the stewardesses who kept me in tissues but by the woman sitting next to me who gently rubbed my back and squeezed my hand when the tears broke through the dam of my British stiff upper lip. Like Blanche DuBois, in Tennessee William’s play, A Streetcar Named Desire, we have all, at some point, “depended on the kindness of strangers”. I recalled the incident, which took place on a British Airways flight from California, when reading about a recent survey on kindness that revealed how a high percentage of people said they were more likely to perform a kind act on holiday or while travelling than at home. Perhaps this is because while on the road we are all forced out of our comfort zones and find ourselves shoulder to shoulder with strangers in need.

Today kindness is an unappreciated quality, the doting aunt of personal characteristics, briefly welcomed but swiftly forgotten and then ushered out of the room in favour of more ‘important’ qualities. When we think of a kind person, we too often picture a patsy, a people pleaser, lacking in steel and too willing to bend to the will and wants of others. So it was refreshing to read an article on Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle site, about the importance of attempting to teach kindness to children, as opposed to hoping it will somehow emerge, unbidden. For the hard fact is that kindness has always occupied a low rung on the aspirational ladder, as a Harvard study of 10,000 children discovered. When asked to put the qualities of ‘kindness’, ‘personal happiness’ and ‘achievement’ in order of importance, the majority of children placed kindness in last place, with ‘achievement’ in pole position. What was equally interesting is that the children believed their parents would agree with their order of importance.

It is understandable, as it’s a tough, difficult world out there and who wouldn’t want to instil the importance of achievement in the younger generation, but kindness comes with its own rewards and these can last a lifetime. A kind act benefits everyone, the giver and the receiver. As Shakespeare said of mercy, it ‘is twice blessed, it blesseth him that gives and him that takes”, but the bard was unaware that it also blesses those who are witnesses. The Harvard study discovered that after students watched a video of Mother Teresa tending to the poor of Calcutta, the level of serotonin in their saliva, the chemical used in Prozac and other anti-depressants, had actually risen. Kind acts are scientifically proven to be good for our health as they increase levels of serotonin and oxytocin, the hormone that assists in the fostering of bonds, as well as reducing blood pressure.

Kindness has also been at the core of the world’s religions with Buddha stating that “a generous heart, kind speech and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity,” while both Jesus and Mohammed were more succinct, stating ‘love they neighbour as thyself’ and ‘do you love your creator? Love your fellow beings first.”

So why wouldn’t we wish to teach the young about acts that are so beneficial to all? The question is how to go about it. Dr Robin Berman, author of Permission to Parent, argues that kindness is not an inheritable trait, something with which we are born, but requires to be taught. (This is a matter of debate as George Price, an eccentric polymath, convincingly argues that altruism, which should go against the Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest, is actually hard-wired into our nature but benevolently directed towards assisting our immediate relatives and family so as to better propagate our genes.)

Dr Berman advocates teaching young children the acronym ‘ABK: Always Be Kind’ and believes that while at the dinner table it is just as important to ask one’s children ‘what did you do today that was kind’ as it is to ask what grade they received in a test. Kindness is clearly an emotional muscle that develops and grows with persistent use and from which we all benefit. The psychologist Martin Seligman studied kind acts and stated: “We found that doing a kind act provokes the single most reliable increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”

If Dr Berman had her way, all parents would view kindness as an important skill that needs to be taught to the young and practiced daily. Can we imagine young children actively seeking out opportunities each day to practice their ‘kindness’? While it may seem the epitome of America’s Pollyanna-ish saccharine sweetness, is that really such a bad thing? Couldn’t our society benefit from an overdose of kindness? She also argues for discussing with children the importance of character and co-operation that will further instil a personal code of kindness. It made me think of the great song of the seventies, ‘Teach Your Children’ by Crosby, Stills & Nash: “You who are on the road/Must have a code that you can live by/And so become yourself.”

Any children taught the importance of kindness and challenged to practice it each day will surely have plenty of opportunities. Who knows, maybe they’ll grow up to pass a hanky and a few kind words to another woman grieving at 35,000 feet.

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