As mentioned in my previous blog I planned on spending more time studying different topics in the field of positive psychology.
Some of the topics studied by positive psychologists include altruism and empathy, creativity, forgiveness and compassion, the importance of positive emotions, enhancement of immune system functioning, savoring the fleeting moments of life, and strengthening virtues as a way to increase authentic happiness. Recent efforts in the field of positive psychology have focused on extending its principles toward peace and well-being at the level of the global community.
On the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center conducts rigorous scientific research on healthy aspects of the mind, such as kindness, forgiveness, compassion, and mindfulness. Established in 2008 and led by renowned neuroscientist Dr. Richard J. Davidson, the Center examines a wide range of ideas, including such things as a kindness curriculum in schools, neural correlates of prosocial behavior, psychological effects of Tai Chi training, digital games to foster prosocial behavior in children, and the effectiveness of yoga and breathing exercises in reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Today I want to look at one of the above mentioned factors: kindness. I will also try to elaborate on a key factor required to show genuine acts of kindness: compassion. As a kid I was taught about being kind to others. I was told that part of being kind means sharing with others, not being rude or unfair towards playing partners and helping those in need. Interestingly enough, the word "kindness" translates into at least 8 different words in the German language: Freundlichkeit, Liebenswürdigkeit, Güte, Gewogenheit, Gunst, Gefallen, Gefälligkeit, and Nettigkeit. The first three are probably the most accurate and most commonly used.
Nowadays, it seems to occur that the terms kindness and compassion aren't used in the right context and get mixed up. I see the term "compassion" being used a lot on LinkedIn and other social media platforms to express good leadership. On the other hand, the term kindness appears rather seldom in the same context. But what does each term mean individually and what's the difference between kindness and compassion? And why should we - in the context of business relationships - rather talk about kindness than about compassion?
Kindness vs. Compassion
Kindness and compassion are recognized as basic or primary human values. These values shape the relationship between people within organizations and societies. In general, our first impulse is to cooperate rather than compete. Even toddlers spontaneously help people in need out of genuine concern for their welfare. More importantly, kindness and compassion are not just limited to helping others, but also towards helping oneself. People who are kind and compassionate are more satisfied with their lives, have better physical and mental health, and have stronger relationships. Being kind and compassionate can help other people, and make you feel good too.
While kindness and compassion require similar qualities, kindness can be seen as an action while compassion is a feeling towards others. Compassion can be defined as the feeling that arises when you perceive another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. It can arise from empathy - the more general ability to understand and feel others’ emotions - but goes further by also including the desire to help. Of course, we can feel compassion without acting on it, and not all helpful acts are motivated by compassion.
When compassion does lead to action, we often call the result kindness. Kindness always includes the intention to benefit other people, especially (though not always) at a cost or risk to ourselves. However, an act of kindness can theoretically also be done without feeling compassion towards the other person. An act of kindness towards a single person can also be fueled by the intention of benefiting a broader spectrum of people.
Why kindness and compassion are important
While one of the main discussions about the importance of kindness and compassion takes place in a business and societal context, I would like to point out a few simple factors on why one should practice kindness and compassionate as much as possible:
#1 - They make us happy...
Compassion training programs, even very brief ones, strengthen reward circuits in the brain and lead to lasting increases in self-reported happiness.
Compassion training also enables us be more altruistic, and kindness does seem to be its own reward—giving to others activates those pleasure circuits and actually makes people, including kids, happier than spending money on themselves.
#2 - They make us more resilient...
Feeling compassion helps us to overcome empathic distress - the feeling for others that makes us so upset that we want to run away rather than help. We are better able to handle the strong emotions that occur when faced with others’ suffering.
#3 - They are good for our health...
Feeling compassionate can reduce the risk of heart disease by helping slow the heart rate, and compassion training has been shown to reduce stress hormones and boost the immune system.
Acts of kindness such as donating money help lower blood pressure.
People who volunteer are healthier overall, and teens who volunteer to help younger kids show reduced risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
#4 - They improve our relationships...
Compassion is associated with more satisfaction and growth in friendships and makes us less vindictive towards others.
Compassionate behavior is highly valued in romantic relationships: In surveys of over 10,000 people across 37 cultures, kindness was rated the most important quality in a mate, and the only one universally required.
Compassion and altruism promote social connections in general and creates ripple effects of generosity in communities.
Why we should focus on kindness in a business context
As mentioned before I have recently seen a variety of pictures and graphs telling you about things like "the spectrum of empathy" or that you should evolve from feeling pity to sympathizing and emphasizing with others to showing compassion.
Compassion is a strong feeling aiming at relieving someone else's suffering. While it is easier to develop compassion towards people (or any living being for that matter) who are truly suffering, I find it rather difficult to develop the same feelings towards someone who is generally just fine besides - for example - being in a temporarily stressful situation at work or other 'first world problems'.
Being able to develop feelings is a matter of personality. It is a trait that not everyone possesses equally. Yes, I said that even toddlers want to help because they feel for others, but for some people showing emotions and developing feelings is easier than for others. In my humble opinion, we can't just demand compassion from someone who has a hard time developing feelings towards others. Yet we can ask or train them to regularly practice and perform acts of kindness. People who have the gift of understanding and utilizing their own and other people's emotions - those we tend to call 'emotionally intelligent' nowadays - can be enablers for those who are not as empathetic. They can show others how to develop habits and improve their sense for what then is perceived as acts of kindness.
I might even want to go as far as to say that we don't have to exchange otherwise qualified leaders which lack the ability to sense emotions and develop feelings towards their employees. While compassion-training is one cornerstones of being able to show genuine acts of kindness (neuroplasticity is a truly magical thing!), good leadership coaches should also show leaders how little acts of kindness can improve work relationships, organizational culture, leader-member exchange, perceived leadership quality, and create a more humane work environment.
Reviewing all of the above stated benefits of kindness and compassion, especially their health benefits, I feel for those who lack the natural ability to show kindness and compassion. But rather than plainly displaying pity, blaming them for their shortcomings and telling them that they should be doing something differently - as it is currently happening on social media - I would encourage all of us to be kind and compassionate and show those people around us lacking these traits how to improve upon them. There are a few things we can do or teach others to do. Popular and effective positive psychology techniques include random acts of kindness, like:
paying it forward – treat someone to something, like buying a cup of coffee for the person behind you in the café queue
sending notes of gratitude – hand-write a thank you note to someone you admire or who has helped you out
post a sticky note – stick post-it notes with nice messages written on them around your house or somewhere in public
volunteering – being a volunteer helps others and is good for you too
donating to a charity store – help people out by giving away what you no longer want or need
smiling at strangers – smiling is contagious and it makes you feel good if people smile back
letting people know you love what they do – this could be someone you know or people you admire, like a writer or musician
Showing kindness is human - it's in our nature. Being human is to show kindness. We don't have to be fully invested in other people's suffering - because we can't. We are unique in the way our body and mind reacts to emotions and feelings. Nobody can truly feel what you feel. And believe it or not, some people don't even want you to try and feel what they feel or be compassionate about them.
However, we all can have the intention to benefit others which is the essence of kindness. We may have unlearned it in today's overly competitive work environments. Let's try to focus on what makes us human again and strive for creating humane work environments by practicing acts of kindness to improve human relationships.
Be kind - not only for someone else's sake, but for your own.