We were recently struck by comments in the media that some individuals felt that the government’s message to “Be kind” felt patronising after all this time. It got us thinking about what kindness is and what it means to us, as a society, and how it is often confusing and misunderstood. Then, during the sense of chaos around the resurgence of COVID-19 in our communities in Auckland, and the subsequent rollercoaster of emotions, we wanted to write something to help clarify what kindness is from a clinical psychology standpoint. The science of kindness, if understood and harnessed well, can be a real source of power to steer us forward at times of uncertainty and loss; it is not just something “fluffy and nice” to do.

So, what actually is “kindness”? Research helps clarify a scientific definition of kindness, identifying three key ingredients that help guide us:

    1. Tolerance
    2. Empathy
    3. Principled (valued) action

Dr Ashley Bloomfield reminded us this week that it’s important to remember that “the COVID -19 virus is the problem; not the people.” He is so right, but it can be hard to remember the facts when the threat response is so hard-wired into us as a species. When we feel threatened, afraid and uncertain, part of our evolutionary human response is to go into the “fight-flight or freeze” threat response in our brains. In this threat-focused mindset, we make quick judgments more readily. Judgments such as wanting to apportion “blame”, although very normal, are not always very useful longer term. This response has the side-effect of disconnecting us from each other, so we can focus fully on the threat short-term, but this disconnection can have negative longer-term ramifications for us as a society. Research suggests that the ingredients involved in kindness provide an emotional and social handbrake to this threat response and help us reconnect and turn off our angry-anxious “ape brains”, so we can tune into more evolved and effective ways of thinking and behaving that help us move forward as a people – together. 

So, what else can kindness teach us and do for us? Why is it not just a “nice thing to do” but actually a key ingredient in our survival and ability to thrive as a species, especially at times of threat and uncertainty? Dr Lee Rowland is a University of Oxford research psychologist and a chartered psychologist with Kindlab: “Where kindness meets science” www.kindness.org. In his 2017 article for the British Psychological Society journal, Lee details research indicating that kindness has been shown to be a factor in the following areas:

  • Kindness reduces anxiety: Socially anxious participants who engaged in acts of kindness for four weeks showed a decrease in social avoidance goals. The authors concluded: “Engaging in acts of kindness is an effective way to reduce state-level social anxiety.”
  • “Nice guys finish first”: Across three experiments, in a social dilemma game where participants could either benefit themselves or their group, the most altruistic members gained the highest status in their group. The authors reported: “Our findings unequivocally show that altruistic group members received more status. They were more respected, held in higher esteem, and were more likely to be chosen as group leaders.”
  • Empathy reduces the common cold: In a randomised-controlled trial, patients who rated their clinicians as showing greater empathy had reduced common-cold severity and duration, and increases in immune response levels, compared to those who experienced their clinicians as less empathetic.
  • “Giving time gives you more time”: Participants in a study spent their time writing and mailing a letter to a gravely ill child. Later that day, they perceived they had more time to themselves than did controls.
  • Spending on others is good for your heart: Participants with high blood pressure were randomly assigned to spend payments on themselves or on other people. Those who spent money on others exhibited decreased blood pressure over the course of the study. The magnitude of the effect was comparable to antihypertensive medication or exercise.

This research helps us to clarify why the messaging “Be kind” matters, especially now. Viruses are not the only things that are contagious; kindness has been proven to be, too. If at all possible, it should not be viewed as “condescending” or “judgmental” but a helpful nudge to listen to that part inside us all that connects us as a society, not disconnects us. Kindness is a value – not a black and white concept. It’s something we work on each day to move that 0.00001% toward something that matters to us all – recovery, healing and ultimately connection. However, in reality, this research just backs up what we have known instinctively as humans since the beginning of time: that kindness matters, and it does make a difference.

Read more on the science of kindness, empathy and compassion:

How to help and be helped

Dealing with the overwhelm – what’s your style?

Sips of kindness and compassion