One day when I was eight, I went on a trip to a funfair with one of my best friends and her parents. We had such a great day. But when it came to the large merry-go-round my friend didn’t want to go on the ride, so I clambered up on my own to sit astride a gaily painted horse and watched the world go round.
When the ride came to a stop, I scrambled back down to the ground and quickly realised I couldn’t find my friend or her parents. Wandering around like a lost sheep, with tears streaming down my face, a lady came up to me and asked if I was alright and where were my parents? She took me to the “Lost Kids” tent where another lady gave me a drink, a sweet biscuit and a comic to read. Shortly after my friend and her parents turned up, highly embarrassed because they thought they had had time to duck off to the shooting range while I was on the ride, but when they returned, I had gone.
A happy ending, but it was the kindness of strangers that made the biggest impact on me that day.
It’s that time a friend buys you a concert ticket for your favourite band that you go to watch together, or when as a junior doctor your boss offers you the opportunity for the magical experience of delivering twins (under his watchful eye), or when a colleague notices you’re not yourself and brings you coffee and a hug.
These moments of kindness are what leave an indelible impression, a memory of awe, joy or relief.
They bind us more closely as humans. We feel more compassion, empathy, pride and connection.
The science of kindness
What makes us kind?
It turns out kindness has a physiological basis.
The vagal nerve is the longest of our cranial nerves that wanders from the brain stem to the muscles of our neck enabling us to nod our head, orient our gaze and vocalise. Moving south it helps to regulate our breathing and heart rate, and acts as a modulator between the brain and the gut so we can adapt to stressors in our environment. It’s known to influence the immune system and regulate the level of inflammation in the body.
Research by Dacher Keltner author of the Power Paradox and Born to be Good has revealed how it is the strength of our vagal tone that determines empathy and compassion.
A higher vagal tone calms the mind and promotes more positive and prosocial emotion via the impact on our oxytocin levels. This leads to what Keltner surmises to serve our greatest need; to connect, survive and thrive.
we are hardwired to connect and care.
Choosing to care
The one thing that makes it harder to for us to have compassion for others (unless you are a sociopath) is when you are experiencing severe chronic stress, as time pressure, work overload or worries.
In this state of mind, you’re operating in survival mode. It’s not that you’re a horrible person (well, at least I hope you’re not) but when you’re under relentless pressure your bandwidth for caring becomes increasingly narrowed.
It’s time to stop always being in a rush.
Back in 1973 in a social psychology study a group of 67 seminary students were asked to prepare a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan. They were randomly assigned (unbeknownst to them) to be in a “hurried” state, an “intermediate hurried” state or “non-hurried” state.
The “hurried” group were advised that they were already late to deliver their sermon in another building, so they had better hurry up. The intermediate group were told that “they are ready for you now, please make your way to the building”. The control group were advised that there were a few minutes lee-way, but they might as well go across now.
Each student walked alone to their destination and on the way came across a man (a confederate to the study) slumped in a doorway with his eyes closed and clearly distressed.
Who would stop to help?
Interestingly in the “hurried” group only 10% did, whereas 47% of the “intermediate” group and 63% of the unhurried group stopped to assist.
How does this play out at work?
If you’re always under time pressure, the need to achieve your goals becomes the prime target. When there is less pressure it’s easier to spread your focus of attention to other things.
Managing your cognitive load means taking back control of how you allocate your time and mental energy because if you’re rushing around putting out spot-fires you are no longer present to what’s going on and as a consequence won’t always be making the best decisions.
What this study showed is how caring and compassion is more than just a personality trait, the other major variable being the amount of time pressure or stress a person is experiencing.
Caring matters. Because when you feel cared for and you care about other people, everything feels better. Relationships are strengthened, we are more trusting, more generous and we’ll take the time to stop and help someone in trouble. Which is why creating a workplace environment founded on care creates a massive opportunity for increased contribution, collaboration and working well together.
Cultivating compassion and care
It’s often the simplest of actions that have the greatest impact.
- Smile more
- Slow your breathing rate. Exhaling slowly using deep diaphragmatic breathing for one to three complete breaths is instantly calming.
- Practice mindful breathing as a yoga practice or formal mindfulness meditation
- Engage in healthy self-care habits with good nutrition (plant based, fresh and unprocessed) regular exercise and increased physical activity across the day, getting enough sleep, and keeping a gratitude journal
- Spend more time outside. 120 minutes in the great outdoors is the minimum recommended for good mental health and wellbeing
- Seek out opportunities to practice random acts of kindness
- Keep things real by regularly switching off from your social media
What are you doing to slow down to notice more and share greater kindness?