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Can I Learn to Show Kindness?

Two recent incidents reported in The Post serve as welcome reminders that, despite the scary economy, the growing ugliness of the presidential campaign and all the worries that are built into our lives these days, some people still manage to show kindness to others.

The heartbreaking case of two little girls found dead in a freezer in their Maryland home had this one bright spot: Their neighbors have embraced the girls' 7-year-old sister and made sure she's taken good care of at last.

And this touching tale of an inebriated Maryland man putting himself to bed -- in someone else's home -- and the gentle generosity with which the homeowners treated him makes me wonder: Would I have been as nice as they were?

M.J. Ryan, author of The Giving Heart: Unlocking the Transformative Power of Generosity in Your Life (Conari Press, 2000) and one of the creators of the Random Acts of Kindness series (also Conari Press), says it's a question worth asking, if only for the health benefits kindness confers.

Ryan says research shows that being kind and generous can add years to your life, probably because committing an act of kindness -- or even thinking a kind thought -- is may trigger the release of stress-busting, happy-making hormones that combat the potentially damaging hormones your anxiety and fear activate. Ryan mentions the "helper's high," a rush of feel-good endorphins induced by doing unto others, and says those hormones may help keep you healthy. (For the record, Ryan's not a doctor, and I wasn't able to find published studies to support these claims. But the general principles are in keeping with existing research about stress hormones and endorphins.)

But what if kindness doesn't come naturally? Can you train yourself to do nice things?

Ryan says you can.

Here's how to get started:

  • Recognize what holds you back: "Notice what are the things that stand in the way of your being as kind and generous as you want, and think how you can work around them," Ryan suggests.

  • Find a kind of kindness that suits you: "Sometimes you look at what other people have done and think, oh my god, I have to do something like THAT?," Ryan notes. We can't all be Mother Theresa. But, Ryan says, "I think every one of us has a river of generosity running through us. You need to tap into where that river naturally wants to flow."

  • Choose your targets: You might do best aiming your kind deeds at animals in shelters, at an ailing relative, or at a young mother struggling with a cart and kids at the grocery store. "Look at the things you care about, and ask how you can be generous in those areas."

  • Allow yourself a "downward comparison": "When we think, 'He's got it worse than me,' that activates generosity," Ryan says. "I used to think that was a bad thing, lifting yourself on someone else's back," she adds. "But those who do that are more generous." Ryan notes that the author Anne Lamott once said that every time she starts worrying about money, she takes out her checkbook and makes a donation. That act, Ryan says, has the effect of reminding Lamott that she must not be that bad off after all.

  • Just do it: "Go out and do nice things for other people," Ryan advises. "You will feel better."
  • Has anyone done something nice for you lately? And do you think kindness wanes during tough times? Or does adversity make us nicer to one another?

    By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  October 10, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
    Categories:  Life's Big Questions  
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    Comments

    You're asking if Washington Compost readers can learn to be kind? I seriously doubt it. Judging from comments in the blogs, they are the rudest, nastiest, most self-centered people on the face of the earth. If anyone's opinion differs from theirs they shout them down with abuse and insults. Good manners and civility are also acts of kindness. If you don't have them, you'll never be kind.

    We don't all have to be Mother Teresa's, and some random acts of kindness are totally lost on the recipients. I've given gifts to people and have never even received a word of thanks. My neighbor, for instance, never thanked me for a set of photos I took at her son's recent wedding. (I had an extra set made up for her.) Another friend got a handknit baby blanket for a new grandchild. Nary a word of thanks and he keeps 'forgetting' to give it to the parents (they live out of state). Go figure. I'm not talking about a handwritten thank you note. Just the words 'thank you' will suffice.

    Don't get me started on the lack of kindness in the workplace. If you have to suffer a cubemate who holds loud personal phone conversations all day, or one who clears her throat constantly, or one who eats stinky ethnic food at her desk all day, their cluelessness can be considered 'unkind.' Another example would be the extremely wealthy (inherited) partner in our firm who wouldn't even acknowledge your presence if you got onto the elevator with him. We peons are too unworthy of his glance.

    I grew up in a family where it was expected you do charity or social service work, and to be civil and polite. Obviously people aren't being taught that anymore. Furthermore it negates itself if you expect some kind of glory or recognition for doing acts of kindness. Therefore WaPo readers won't be bothered. They're too much into the I/Me/My frame of mind.

    Posted by: Anonymous | October 10, 2008 10:25 AM | Report abuse

    I believe that anyone can learn to show kindness, but it will always come easier to some people than to others.

    When we encounter someone on the street/at work/in a store, we always judge them, whether it be by the clothes they're wearing, the look on their face, or the company they're in. What we have to do is look beyond external appearances and be purposeful in showing them kindness.

    It can be as simple. Like holding the door for someone or smiling. The next time you're at the checkout register, engage the cashier in conversation. Heck, I've even asked them to pick out their favorite candy and bought it for them.

    And the simple stuff is where you need to start. And the more you become attune to people, the more attuned you will be to their needs and you'll be better equipped to meet their needs.

    I hope someone is showing kindness to all the people I see in the finance photos, holding their heads and looking glum. It's in the tough times that you need it the most.

    And to the prior anonymous poster, thank you for your comments. I hope that you will give humanity another chance to try and do the right thing. I know I'll do my best to be kind to you.

    Posted by: Stephen | October 10, 2008 10:48 AM | Report abuse

    I am all for being kind; however, this has backfired on me several times. (no good deed goes unpunished?) Each time I try to help a person, they end up being angry and upset that I did not help them more and they did not change nor appreciate the help! I would rather help animals or children, who really appreciate the time and effort. Mark Twain was right when he said that if you take a dog in and feed him he will be grateful for the rest of his life, this cannot be said of man (or something close to that)

    Posted by: Pat | October 10, 2008 12:08 PM | Report abuse

    I've given gifts to people and have never even received a word of thanks. My neighbor, for instance, never thanked me for a set of photos I took at her son's recent wedding. (I had an extra set made up for her.) Another friend got a handknit baby blanket for a new grandchild. Nary a word of thanks and he keeps 'forgetting' to give it to the parents (they live out of state). Go figure. I'm not talking about a handwritten thank you note. Just the words 'thank you' will suffice.

    Don't get me started on the lack of kindness in the workplace. If you have to suffer a cubemate who holds loud personal phone conversations all day, or one who clears her throat constantly, or one who eats stinky ethnic food at her desk all day, their cluelessness can be considered 'unkind.' Another example would be the extremely wealthy (inherited) partner in our firm who wouldn't even acknowledge your presence if you got onto the elevator with him. We peons are too unworthy of his glance.

    I grew up in a family where it was expected you do charity or social service work, and to be civil and polite. Obviously people aren't being taught that anymore. Furthermore it negates itself if you expect some kind of glory or recognition for doing acts of kindness. Therefore WaPo readers won't be bothered. They're too much into the I/Me/My frame of mind.

    Posted by: Anonymous | October 10, 2008 10:25 AM

    Pot meet kettle!

    Posted by: What a baby! | October 10, 2008 1:14 PM | Report abuse

    Kindness really helps--and you never know when you'll need it yourself. I have always made a real effort to be kind, from talking to lonely kids I know in the neighborhood to getting groceries for an older neighbor to visiting friends who have suffered a loss. And now, today, my husband just heard that he may be losing his job later this month--and I could seriously use some kindness right back. You never know what someone is going through when you perform a simple act of kindness, but sometimes it's really necessary for the recipient, and to my mind, that means it's worth it to be kind whenever it's humanly possible.

    Posted by: saralyn | October 10, 2008 4:34 PM | Report abuse

    1:14: Apparently childbirth has burned so many brain cells you can only utter the same hackneyed three-letter retort to every comment. If you want to appear clever, Tootsie, hire yourself a writer. Any 7-year-old should be adequate for you.

    Posted by: Get over yourself | October 10, 2008 7:23 PM | Report abuse

    I find that helping a stranger or doing some small thing for a friend makes me feel good. I've been reading quite a bit lately by positive psychologists on what makes people happy. One happiness intervention they propose is to perform acts of kindness. The act should be something that you really want to do expecting nothing in return. I helped a woman carry her baby carriage down the subway steps and although my back was hurting afterwards:) my emotions felt good.

    Posted by: Donna http://www.Breakthroughlifecoaching.net | October 13, 2008 2:46 PM | Report abuse

    Oh, yes, kindness. I was raised in a clan where kindness is a priority. In my family of seven, it was something that wasn't taught to us. my parents were our role models. our grandparents were our role models. it runs in the whole clan. we did not expect any rewards or even a mere thank you. it's genetic that it comes out so natural.

    Posted by: Ms. Elsie U. Naguit | October 15, 2008 8:57 AM | Report abuse

    I saw my mother do kind things for people all the time. For her it was natural. I never heard her complain about thanks or being reciprocated. To her it was a part of making friends and being human. My brother was the same way everyday I heard him say something kind about and older person, or a lonely person to brighten their day.

    In memory of them I try to do kind things. It makes you feel good, it comes back many times more especially when you least expect it.

    You don't have to be a good person, to do kind things, but you do have to step outside your comfort zone.

    Posted by: byrd | October 16, 2008 11:33 AM | Report abuse

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