The Challenge to Be Kinder

Research suggests that kinder is better.

Posted Jan 01, 2017

LarsZ/Shutterstock
Source: LarsZ/Shutterstock

The past year was filled with tragedy, trauma, and injustice in many forms, and we all experienced some strong emotions in response. When fear and anger arise, it’s easy to adopt an “us vs. them” perspective and believe that we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys.

But if we hate people who disagree with us, then we’re haters, too. And when we hate, we don't see others as the complex human beings they are. In dehumanizing others because they think differently, and seeing them as the enemy, we only make it harder to communicate with them. That sense of isolation often magnifies problems and stokes our own fear and anger, which leads to even more stress about the future. When we feel afraid, we tend to focus on possible dangers. This can magnify a problem, or lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A new year provides an opportunity to make new choices about how we perceive ourselves, others, and the world around us. We may erroneously believe that external circumstances need to change so we can be happy, and in a better space to be kinder to others. The quote often attributed to Gandhi, on being the change we wish to see in the world, has never been more timely. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that outside circumstances need to change for you to be kinder. Change is an inside job: It takes conscious effort to appreciate the good and show kindness. These are the practices we need now more than ever.

Here are four research-supported ways to become kinder now:

1. Look for the good in others.

... and when you find it, appreciate it and comment on it. This may sound Pollyannaish, but research shows that our expectations have a powerful influence on other people’s behavior. Treating others with kindness, and expecting them to be kind, increases the likelihood that they will behave with kindness.

2. Limit exposure to negativity.

We have a perceptual bias to pay more attention to negative, potentially threatening information. The media tends to focus on negative stories because they engage audiences. It’s good to be aware of possible threats and problems, but without perspective-taking, it can lead us to believe that the negative always outweighs the positive. Be discerning about your information sources and limit the amount of time and attention you give to negative stories.

3. Be in the present moment.

Life is made up of a series of present moments. By staying in the now, you’ll be reminded that you’re accountable for the quality of your own life. Research on present-moment awareness cultivated through meditation shows that it reduces stress and increases clarity and compassion in one’s daily life.

4. Practice loving-kindness meditation.

Deliberately imagine yourself, your loved ones, people you feel neutral about, and even people you dislike experiencing happiness and freedom. Research on this kind of meditation shows that it can build emotional resilience and support meaningful social connections, which can help us deal with future challenges.

For more information on increasing self-awareness and compassion, visit The Clear Mirror, follow me on Twitter, and join The Clear Mirror community on Facebook.

Copyright Tara Well, 2016

References

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohen, M. A., & Coffey, K. A. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced lovingkindness, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1045-1062.

Hoffman, S. G., Grossman, P., & Hinton, D. E. (2011). Lovingkindness and compassion meditation: Potential for psychological intervention. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 1126-1132. 

Madom, S., Jussim, L., & Ecceles, J. (1997). In search of the powerful self-fulfilling prophesy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 791 – 809.

Rozin, P., Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 296-320.

Salzburg, S. (2002). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Shambhala.