What Does It Mean to Cultivate Kindness?

In one of Aesop’s most well-known fables, the North Wind and the Sun argue over which one of them is the strongest. Seeing a traveler approach on the road, they agree on a challenge to settle the debate once and for all: Whichever one of them succeeds in making the traveler remove his coat is the strongest.

What Does It Mean to Cultivate Kindness?

The north wind went first. He blew and blew with all his might, but the traveler only wrapped his coat around himself more tightly. Then it was the sun’s turn. Calmly and quietly, the sun directed his rays of light to the spot where the traveler was walking. In no time at all, the traveler began to sweat, removed his coat, and sat under a tree to rest.

From Fable to Scientific Fact

What this fable so elegantly demonstrates is the power of kindness to bring about change in the people around you—a power that surpasses that of threats, criticism, and violence. In fact, research has shown that an act of kindness isn’t only great for the recipient, it has several benefits for the person performing the act as well, including:

Interestingly, a 2017 experiment found that you can reap the benefits of kindness not only by performing a generous or thoughtful act for a stranger (such as helping an elderly person cross the road) but by also doing something kind for friends and family. In fact, doing something nice for yourself and watching a kind act can have the same effect!

Two Approaches to Kindness

However, there is a type of kindness that doesn’t make you happier. According to a 2018 study undertaken by researchers from the University of Sussex—a strategic display of “kindness” for which you are planning to gain something in return (money, help, reputation, votes) affects the brain in different ways than kindness you conduct for the joy of giving. 

In contrast to altruistic kindness, strategic kindness activates the striatal regions of the brain (responsible for processing action and reward), whereas altruistic kindness activates the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (responsible for risk assessment, emotional mitigation, and decision-making). 

How to Cultivate Kindness

If you’re ready to enjoy more happiness and wellbeing in your day-to-day life, here are three simple ways to cultivate kindness in your thoughts and actions, and reap the benefits:

1. Intentionally Observe Kind Acts

When you’re trying to start a new habit, simply watching and learning from others is an easy place to start. Begin to cultivate kindness-pathways in your brain by looking up “good-news stories”, “everyday hero” and “random acts of kindness” videos, and—even better—get out onto the street and start people-watching. Once you start looking for kindness and compassion around you, you might be amazed at what you see!

2. Engage in Loving-Kindness Meditation

To get yourself on the pathway to compassionate action in your own life, begin to cultivate an attitude of kindness with regular loving-kindness meditation. Inspired by practices from Buddhism and complementary to mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness meditation (LKM) involves focusing your thoughts on positive affirmations that are first directed toward yourself and then directed toward others.

Examples of self-love affirmations include:

  • May I be happy
  • May I be at peace
  • May I experience vibrant health
  • May I live with integrity

It’s a good idea to start with kind thoughts directed toward yourself first; then, when you feel comfortable with that level of meditation, begin to direct these thoughts toward those you love. Picture the person you wish to practice kindness toward in a state of perfect health and happiness, and meditate on the same affirmations, directed toward them.

Once you have mastered these two levels, move on to directing positive affirmations toward your acquaintances, and, finally, your enemies. For those who manage to extend such generous declarations toward those who have hurt them, loving-kindness meditation can be the key that helps them to unlock forgiveness and start to offer unconditional love. Of course, if someone is hurting or mistreating you repeatedly, you need to take action to put a stop to it first, before it becomes appropriate to offer that person forgiveness. 

3. Perform a Random Act of Kindness Every Day

Finally, supercharge your kindness journey by performing one act of kindness every day. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Showing Kindness to Strangers

  • Pay for someone else’s coffee
  • Invite or buy a homeless person lunch
  • Guide a blind person across the road
  • Offer to assist an elderly person or flustered parent with their bags (don’t take it personally if they decline! Everyone has different levels of safety measures and trust)
  • Volunteer for a community group
  • Donate to a charity

Showing Kindness to Friends and Family

  • Cook a meal for a new or expectant parent in your life
  • Visit a friend or relative who doesn’t get out much
  • Buy a random gift for a loved one when you see something you think they would like
  • Purchase restaurant or cinema vouchers and give them to a couple that rarely enjoys quality time alone (maybe even offer to babysit the kids while they go out!)

Showing Kindness to Yourself

  • Treat yourself to a professional massage
  • Invest in joining an exercise class or the gym
  • Enjoy soaking in a long, warm bath
  • Cook yourself a delicious, healthy meal

Extending Kindness to Enemies

  • Reach out to mend a broken relationship
  • Decide to forgive someone who hurt you in the past (only if the person is no longer hurting you)
  • Donate to a charity that helps a group you would typically disagree with or ignore

With so many possibilities for showing kindness, it’s easiest to start with the opportunities you already have around you and gradually expand your comfort zone with random acts for strangers and volunteering. 

As you continue to open your heart and perform acts of generosity and compassion day after day, your “kindness” muscles will grow stronger and it won’t seem like such an effort. You might even feel a strange new warmth—as if the sun were shining right down on you!

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Christian Stiller

Christian is passionate about sharing the benefits of mindfulness meditation, and founder of Brightmind Meditation LLC, maker of an app that offers guided meditation customized to your personal goals. Built upon a powerful curriculum created by world-class meditation teachers like Shinzen Young and Julianna Raye, Brightmind is designed to help you live a healthier and happier life.

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