Life and Love
Nov 30, 2012

Relationships: Can being kind make us happier—and more beautiful?

By: Hannah Swerling

IMAXTREE.COM Author: Elle Canada Credits: IMAXTREE.COM

Life and Love
Nov 30, 2012

Relationships: Can being kind make us happier—and more beautiful?

By: Hannah Swerling
Funny. Sexy. Kind. Intelligent. Stylish. Cool. Which of these do you want to be? I would like to be all of them, please. There are some that I can work on and others that - let's face it - are either inherent or in the eye of the beholder.

For instance, you want your boyfriend to think you're sexy but not your boss. I'd like my colleagues to think I'm stylish, but I don't mind so much if my husband doesn't notice. But I would like everyone to think I'm kind.

That seems like an uncontroversial aspiration. Who would say they don't want to be kind? More to the point, who would say they aren't? We might have our off-days, but most of us think we're basically nice. Are we really, though? Being pleasant to your friends, calling your mother once a week, giving your seat on the train to an elderly person...not quite enough. Sorry.

Being kind requires more work than that. The pervading message to women today is: Be strong, be defiant, be confident. But how many mothers are telling their daughters to be kind? Because where would it get you anyway? Kindness doesn't seem to be the thing that wins you a promotion, a romance or even friendship.

And it's a quality we overlook because it's just not very cool. We live in a culture of snark. We're teasing and ironic. We sound far wittier when we're being detached and sarcastic. Compared to one-line put-downs and killer comebacks, kindness seems unimaginative, tame and outmoded.

We associate it with blandness. But we need to rethink our assumptions. Kindness isn't easy; it's difficult. And it doesn't just benefit others - it also benefits you. Having written in the past about my status as the resident "good girl," I'm in danger of becoming the Marcia Brady of fashion journalism. So let me issue a disclaimer: I am far from perfect.

I gossip and moan with the best of them. But by virtue of an extremely over-sensitive nature, I really do care about not upsetting people and I essentially want to be good and kind.

Here's what got me thinking about kindness: Jo, a friend of mine, recently told me about a dilemma relating to a woman she knew, Nina. They weren't close friends, but Nina was very ill and on Jo's mind. She wanted Nina to know she was thinking of her, but she didn't want to overstep the mark.

Find out why do so many of us shy away from kindness on the next page...

relationships-kindness-2.jpgIn the end, Jo took a risk and sent her a care package full of treats. A few weeks later, Nina contacted her to tell her how touched she had been by Jo's kind and thoughtful gesture. It paid off, despite the unpredictable consequences.

But Jo's anxiety about sending the parcel reveals how hard it can be to do something unambiguously nice for someone. It can make you feel exposed, open to rejection, a bit silly or embarrassingly naive.

"Acts of kindness push you out of your comfort zone," says Dr. David Hamilton, author of Why Kindness Is Good for You. "But they also produce the biggest gains. Most people are receptive to kindness, whatever the motivation. It's our cynicism and prejudices that inspire self-doubt."

We expose ourselves when we show compassion because we're telling someone "I care." We are acknowledging that shared but often unspoken truth that we are vulnerable and reliant on one another.

It's true that some people are either extremely private or cynical and may reject your kindness, but most wouldn't. The other worry is that we may come across as sanctimonious.

No one likes a bragger, but this isn't about public declarations of benevolence; it's about those quiet, caring acts that will often bring their own reward. The culture of snark has undermined our self-confidence and made us believe that we should never be too impressed or moved by something.

Sentimentality is viewed as a weakness - a response that clouds rational judgment. But sometimes we should allow ourselves to be governed more by our emotions because they are the source and indicator of our empathy. They motivate us to be kind. Should we need further incentive, Hamilton's studies have also proven that being kind simply makes us happier.

A caring gesture produces dopamine in the brain, which provides a natural high. It also produces oxytocin, the hormone that binds human relationships together. Feeling closer to other people has a net gain on our emotional state. Kindness is about active human empathy, not passive, detached behaviour.

And people who are selfish - at work or at home - do not build strong and lasting relationships. We operate under the misconception that humans are, by nature, selfish - it's survival of the fittest.

And while it may be true that self-preservation is elemental, even in evolutionary terms, humans have always thrived by looking out for other people and allowing themselves to be looked after in return.

What does kindness mean in general for the human race? Find out on the next page...

relationships-kindness-2.jpgThe human species wouldn't exist in its current state if we weren't predisposed to behave in this way. We are hard-wired for kindness. Studies have shown that there are 15 variants of the gene related to our natural tendency to be kind. And, should you need more convincing, the bonus is that kindness also slows down the aging process.

That same oxytocin, which we produce through emotional warmth, actually reduces the level of free radicals and inflammation - the two culprits that contribute most to aging - in our system. Kindness is not the obvious route to our own perceived success, but it feeds into our most basic natural empathy with others.

When someone pays me a compliment, for instance, I feel good, and, no matter how narcissistic my motivation, I like her for it because she has made me happy. I then carry that compassion with me for the next person to benefit from. If you need even more proof of the power of kindness - and everyone's hunger for it - just look around you.

Modern life is blamed for coarsening our interactions with one another and narrowing our range of interests until all we care about is ourselves and the screen in front of us. And, yes, Facebook will remember our friends' birthdays so we don't have to, and if we haven't bought them a card, we can go online and write on their wall.

Twitter provides a platform to be publicly mean and dismissive - but also kind. Social networks are forums for all sorts of small acts of thoughtfulness and generosity, and the little things that we do make a difference.

Think how pleased it makes you when someone leaves you a nice comment on a picture or sends a supportive tweet. Friendships are often strengthened, maintained or even formed online - for some reason, we seem to find it easier to give compliments or make contact in cyberspace.

Perhaps that's because basic shyness is one of the main impediments to kindness. It's our inhibitions and emotional passivity that keep us emotionally removed from one another, but, as Hamilton's extensive research and studies into the subject have proven, kindness "reduces the emotional distance between two people so we feel more bonded."

With the promise of happiness, stronger relationships and immortality, I've come up with a brilliantly simple new slogan for life: Just do it. (Well, to be fair, Nike got there first.) The root of your motivation is probably good - but even if it isn't, who cares? Do it anyway.

The recipient still enjoys the benefit, and kindness engenders more kindness. It's an upward spiral, and couldn't we all benefit from that.

Read more:
Relationships: The power of the introvert
The truth about revenge

How to be happy: Philosophical counselling 

Men and relationships: The curse of the nice guy

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Life and Love

Relationships: Can being kind make us happier—and more beautiful?