Kindness is more than just a moral obligation; it is "fundamental to our sense of well-being".
The power of kindness
I carry a little card in my wallet with a quote on it by Sri Chinmoy, a spiritual teacher from India. It reads: "The very nature of kindness is to spread. If you are kind to others, today they will be kind to you, and tomorrow to somebody else." I chose it not because it is beautiful but because kindness isn't always easy when dealing with others in the course of a normal day. When I'm preoccupied with my frustrations and tensions, I need a regular reminder of that gentler part of myself.
This isn't because I am trying to be good or moral but because when I am kind to people, I feel a greater sense of well-being. I'm not talking about being over-emotional or over-sentimental but about imagining what it is like to be someone else and responding accordingly - realising the other person is just like me. Using our imagination to empathise and sympathise is a wonderful way to connect with others and feel part of a better world. I agree with the philosopher Alan Ryan, who says that the happy life is one that reflects that "we mutually belong to one another". Yet in contemporary society the act of going out of one's way to help another (without having an agenda), is not as common as it should be.
The joy that kindness can give us - and just how much we have become disassociated from it - is explored in the new book On Kindness (Hamish Hamilton) by the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the feminist historian Barbara Taylor. They write that the pleasure of being kind is "fundamental to our sense of well-being". "Every person, in some part of himself, knows that feelings of connection and reciprocity are among the greatest pleasures that human beings can possess," the book says. Yet according to contemporary feeling, the "dependence" that kindness tends to entail is best avoided. Instead, we often concentrate on working too hard, feeling anxious and living a life that is disconnected from others.
It isn't that people have become less kind but rather that society has made us less able to express it. "People are leading secretly kind lives all the time, but without a language in which to express this or cultural support for it," Phillips writes. Aggression and cruelty come naturally, too, and in a society that values competitiveness, it's not surprising that these behaviours overtake our better instincts more than they should.
The solution is to realise that kindness strengthens rather than weakens us, even in intimate relationships. "It's dependence that actually makes self-reliance possible," Phillips writes. Even Charles Darwin, the champion of individualism, strongly rejected the view of mankind as primarily selfish. "Rather, he argued that sympathy and co-operation were innate to man and a key part of their success."
Doing things for other people can replace the busy wave of thoughts that often don't serve our sense of well-being. It can also be a great motivator. A friend of mine says training for a charity bike ride was the main reason she bothered to keep fit for the rest of the year. The self-development author Dr Wayne W Dyer, in his book The Power of Intention, reminds us that being kind relates to the self as well as others. "Treat yourself and others with kindness when you eat, exercise, play, work, love and everything else. When you think, feel and act kindly, you hasten your ability to connect to the power of intention."