How to cultivate kindness

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 2 of The Year of Happy‘s month on kindness. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

We often hear about random acts of kindness toward strangers – the people in the street giving out free hugs, the driver who pays for your drive-through order, the angel who topped up your parking meter. But some of the most meaningful acts of kindness are non-random: listening to a friend who needs support, putting a note in your child’s lunchbox, cooking dinner for your spouse.

So how kind are you – to others and to yourself? Take this kindness quiz and this self-compassion quiz to find out.

If you don’t score so high, don’t worry – kindness is a habit we can all learn. If you can find the motivation to try, you’ll probably see benefits right away.

“The willingness to do something for others is an attitude that one can practice until it is as natural as riding a bicycle. In time the fear of being exploited fades, and with the courage to give grows the feeling of freedom. The journey begins with curiosity. By experimenting with generosity, we have nothing to lose and much to gain, for selflessness makes us happy and transforms the world,” says Stefan Klein in Survival of the Nicest.

1. Random acts of kindness

In this exercise, follow Sonja Lyubomirsky’s suggestion in The How of Happiness and do five kind things – that you wouldn’t normally do – in a single day. To maximize the effects, make them all different and take time later to write down what you did and how you felt. The five kindnesses don’t have to be for the same person, and the person doesn’t even have to know about it.

Studies have shown that this can make you happier – but only if you follow the rules. Spreading out the five kindnesses throughout the week or doing the same kind things over and over won’t have the same effects, probably because it feels routine or insubstantial.

If you’re stuck on what to do, here are some ideas from David R. Hamilton’s book Why Kindness Is Good for You:

  • Let someone cut you in line at the grocery store
  • Look after someone’s children
  • Sing happy birthday to someone over the phone
  • Give out cakes or pastries on the street
  • Give blood
  • Tell someone they look nice
  • When you go to pick up a coffee, get one for a colleague
  • Visit an elderly person and listen to them talk
  • Hold a door open for someone
  • Find a funny or inspirational video on YouTube and send it to someone who needs it
  • Feed bread to ducks

Check out this Soul Pancake experiment, where participants were shuttled around to do five random acts of kindness in a single day:

2. Lovingkindness meditation

Lovingkindness is a mental state of unconditional love and compassion for all beings that has its roots in Buddhism and mindfulness. As you can imagine, cultivating lovingkindness can make you more kind, since compassion is one of our major motivations for kindness.

In this meditation, you begin by calling up the warm feelings you have toward another person – a spouse or child, for example – and then gradually extending those feelings to yourself, to strangers, and to all beings. Try this meditation from UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (9 minutes) or this one from New Mindful Life (12 minutes, only extending feelings to the self).

In addition to more kindness and altruism, you can expect to experience benefits like more positive emotions (joy, love, gratitude, contentment, hope, pride, interest, amusement, awe), a greater sense of purpose and mastery, more optimism, better relationships, better health, and more life satisfaction.

3. Self-compassionate letter

The self-compassionate letter is a letter to yourself about something you’re ashamed or insecure about. For example, it might be about your appearance, your shyness, your poor performance at work, or the way you snap at your spouse.

Start by describing how this makes you feel, and express compassion and understanding for yourself. If that’s difficult, try to imagine you’re writing to a loved one. Remember that everyone has flaws, and think about how life circumstances may have contributed to you developing this quality. Think about how you could improve or cope with it, and read the letter later when you’re feeling down.

This practice has been shown to reduce shame and self-criticism while increasing motivation for self-improvement. Repeated over time, it can quiet our critical inner voice and cultivate a kind one.

4. Change your self-talk

Developed by University of Texas at Austin professor Kristin Neff, this practice is designed to improve self-kindness by changing the way you talk to yourself in your head. It has three steps:

1. Notice when you’re being self-critical. Observe what words you use, whether there are any patterns, and what the tone of voice sounds like – perhaps a critical parent or teacher from your past?

2. Talk to your critic in a compassionate, non-judgmental way. Say something like “I know you’re trying to keep me safe and to point out ways that I need to improve, but your harsh criticism and judgment is not helping at all.”

3. Reframe the critic’s observations in a kinder and friendlier way and show understanding. If your inner critic is calling you “lazy and useless,” you might reframe the voice to say, “Yes, I have been procrastinating on those job applications, and it would be a good idea to work on them tomorrow. I have been dealing with a lot of personal stress, but this is important to me and I should devote more time to it.” You can even try comforting yourself with a stroke on the arm or a hug.

Neff explains the self-compassionate letter, changing your self-talk, and one bonus practice in this video:

Choose your kindness practice

The first three practices can be done anytime and scheduled on your calendar. For the fourth one, you’ll have to monitor your thoughts and devote some time to it when you notice yourself being critical.

  • Random acts of kindness: Do five acts of kindness on one day, one time per week.
  • Lovingkindness meditation: Commit to meditating for 5-20 minutes every day. Pick a time of day when you feel alert, and try to stick to that time.
  • Self-compassionate letter: Write one letter per week over the course of April, focusing on a different flaw.
  • Change your self-talk: Do this exercise whenever your inner critic comes out. If you tend to be forgetful, you might want to put up a sticky note at your workspace.

Which kindness practice did you pick? Share your choice on our Facebook group.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 1: What is kindness?

Move on to Week 3: The benefits of kindness

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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