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This One Thing Is a Surprising Key to a Good Life

Practice this one thing. Happiness depends on it.

"Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; the third is to be kind.” I hope it simplifies things that these three things are only one thing. Kindness.

Few of us would disagree with these words, attributed to the 19th-century novelist, Henry James? Kindness, like generosity, is a virtue that we all applaud. Love, of course, is everything too. But unlike love, which is something that strikes or that we grow or fall into, kindness is something that we choose. Unlike love, kindness can be practiced.

What does practicing kindness require of us? A FB post advises, “Instead of saying ‘God wouldn’t give you more than you can handle,’ say ‘Can I come over and do your laundry.’” An act of kindness may require very little from us or the opposite. It may require words and action, or restraint and silence. It can be a one-shot deal or a long-distance run.

Helping others is the most recognizable form of kindness, a natural human impulse. Rescuing an abandoned dog from the side of the road, bringing food to a sick neighbor, helping a friend fix a plumbing problem. You can make your own list.

Then we have “Random acts of kindness” which enjoy a kind of bumper-sticker type popularity today. These rate low on the scale of difficulty since It doesn’t take much to anonymously pay for the coffee or toll fee for the person in back of you. Even if you do something difficult like shovel the snow from a stranger’s driveway, that person is still a stranger. You needn’t concern yourself with their offensive political views, their self-absorption, or the irritating way they chew their food.

“Joy of the streets, sorrow of the home” was the expression my mother, Rose, used to describe people who were kind to acquaintances, but not to family. Acts of kindness are hardest to practice with those difficult people in our lives who evoke our anger, frustration, disappointment and the whole range of human emotions we wish to avoid.

Yet it’s here that kindness is most essential because these folks are likely to be our parents, relatives, partners, children, close friends, supervisors and co-workers. Be assured that you will always find difficult people and they will never be you.

Kindness is what the world needs more of, and it’s not optional, not an “extra.” It is rather a human necessity. On the giving end, all humans need to be useful. Being helpful to others is an essential human need and the greatest antidote to despair. It’s also good for our bodies. Meditation practices focusing on loving-kindness have been shown to have a wealth of positive effects, from health benefits like better control of blood glucose and less inflammation to an increase in social connectedness. Kindness changes the structure of your brain, as does its opposite—unkindness.

On the receiving end, all humans need help, if not now then later. If your life is going along swimmingly you can pretend to be a do-it-yourselfer and make like you don’t need people. I can assure you, however, that as you move along the life cycle the Universe will send you a great big lesson in vulnerability, loss, and how much we need each other.

Kindness is not some kind of sentimental pap requiring us to please and placate others, to hold relationships in place as if our lives depended on it, to be the nurturers, soothers, and steadiers of rocked boats. Women, in particular, have had enough of this. Life requires us to confront injustice and unfairness where we see it and to firmly hold our ground even when this brings anger and disapproval from others.

But this is what I know to be true. Everything that can be said can be said with kindness. Every tough position we have to take can be taken with kindness. No exceptions.

Today, more than any other period in my lifetime, there is less kindness in public life, which trickles down and invites people to be less kind in our personal lives. Never, as I see it, have people in my country been so polarized, never has the subject of kindness carried such weight, and have the stakes been so high.

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