Welcome to the latest in our series of short blogs to help you stay safe, sane and supported during the current crisis. Mental Health Awareness Week takes place on 18-24 May and this year’s theme is kindness.

For this blog, we will be exploring this theme, understanding the importance of kindness for our mental health and considering new ways of building kindness into our day-to-day interactions.

What is kindness?

It may seem an obvious question, but what is kindness and why is it important?

The word kind originates from the word kin and is associated with our feelings of kinship, or connection to others. As an adjective, it refers to acts that are sympathetic or helpful and which aim to bring pleasure or relief.

The state of kindness has for centuries been ubiquitously seen as a virtue, quality, or strength that is seen as morally good, and valued for its ability to promote individual and collective success.

However, in modern individualistic and competitive societies, kindness is often viewed as a ‘soft’, ineffectual skill that has no place in the worlds of business, science, or politics. But, whilst self-reliance and individualism play an important role in progress and innovation, kindness is at the heart of our communal success as a social species, in which co-operation and interdependence are essential to our survival.

Indeed, it has perhaps never been a more important time for us to rekindle kindness in our society.

Working together with others, building relationships, recognising the needs of others, and treating them well are key to creating healthy people and organisations. As such, kindness is the glue that supports co-operation and trust, motivating us collectively to work towards the common good.

How is kindness important to our physical & mental health?

A quick look at the research shows just how important kindness is for mental and physical health, impacting our lives and the lives of others in many different ways.

Kindness, happiness and satisfaction

From early in our lives, our experience of caregiving shapes the neurological development of systems that allow us to regulate stress and self-soothe. The experience of kindness, the impact of attuned caring, in infancy and throughout life triggers endorphins and oxytocin that help to soothe us and contribute to feelings of contentment and safety.

Within healthcare settings, receiving kindness or being treated kindly has been linked to improved patient satisfaction. With pressures and demands placing a heavy load on our healthcare system it is easy to feel overlooked or neglected, for example when we are waiting for an appointment, or moved between wards. But if kindness and sensitivity are built into staff interactions we are more likely to maintain a sense of trust and connection with care providers, improving our feelings of satisfaction despite the system’s shortcomings.

Being treated with empathy and compassion, two key elements of kindness, reduces patient anxiety and this has been correlated with fewer repeat presentations at A&E and improved communication, leading to faster and more accurate diagnosis.

Similarly, treating ourselves with kindness and self-compassion has been associated with improvements in our ability to self-soothe, calming anxiety, and providing feelings of emotional warmth and reassurance.

The benefits of kindness are not limited to those receiving it. The performance of kind acts has also been associated with enhanced life satisfaction in the giver as well as the receiver.

In a review of happiness, researchers Boehm and Lyubomirsky identified how committing acts of kindness and expressing gratitude are among the most important factors contributing to sustained enhanced happiness. For example, research participants who were asked to intentionally engage in random acts of kindness, such as holding the door open for strangers, expressing gratitude or doing a roommate’s dishes, reported increased happiness that lasted for up to 6 months.

The positive impact of kind acts and expressions of gratitude is linked to a mix of contributory factors including improved self-regard, positive social interactions and a growth in charitable feelings towards others and the wider community

Kindness, health and wellbeing

Whether through providing or receiving it, the impact of kindness, builds positive emotions, which are associated with improved health and wellbeing. The more positive emotions we experience, the better our immune functioning, and the more likely we are to engage in health-relevant behaviours, and to elicit social support when we need it.

Research on meditation practices that generate feelings of kindness and compassion for oneself and for others, such as loving-kindness meditation, has demonstrated health benefits for individuals and communities and highlighted how these benefits are mediated through enhanced feelings of wellbeing and improved social interaction.

Kindness, peer acceptance and social adjustment

In addition to the health and wellbeing benefits, kindness has also been shown to play an important role in our social adjustment and peer acceptance.

In a study exploring the role of kindness in peer acceptance and wellbeing, researchers found that students who were asked to perform three acts of kindness per week for four weeks showed not only improved wellbeing, but also grew in peer acceptance or popularity.

Enhanced popularity has been associated with improved academic and social outcomes in students, as well as a reduced likelihood of being bullied. This research highlights how kindness, a key prosocial behaviour, plays an important role in mediating our social relationships, helping us to connect positively with others and feel accepted.

The virtuous circle of kindness

In their book, Intelligent Kindness, Ballatt & Campling draw together research on kindness and compassion in healthcare into a model highlighting the positive impact of both offering and receiving kindness.

This model, which the authors refer to as a virtuous circle, emphasises the importance of ‘attentive kindness’ in creating a positively self-reinforcing cycle in which our attunement to another person’s experience reduces anxiety and builds trust. Just as in infancy we learn to regulate our emotions through the feelings of attunement and trust we have with our primary caregivers, the attentive kindness of others at any time in our lives provides the foundation for managing difficult emotions, building stronger relationships and improving wellbeing. And these gains benefit both those receiving kindness, as well as improving morale and reducing stress in those providing it.

Although this model has been developed in relation to healthcare settings, it is applicable to all of us, highlighting how kindness breeds positive emotions and impacts health and wellbeing in any setting.

As the saying says: ‘A little kindness goes a long way’. The more we can bring kindness into our lives and the lives of those around us, through sharing of attentiveness and attunement to each others’ needs, through engaging in multiple acts of kindness, and trying out novel kind acts, the more likely we are to feel better in ourselves, experience a sense of connection and kinship, better mental health and wellbeing.

If you found this helpful and would like to find out more about coping in a crisis, check out some of the other blogs in this series. You might also like to join our Facebook group UR Resilient, where members are busy sharing creative and inspiring ideas for staying positive during this challenging time.