When I was in hospital last year, a friend wrote to me. She wanted to send me flowers but they were not allowed on the ward I was in. Rules is rules so, instead, she said she was going to plant up pots of tulips so I had something lovely to look forward to in the spring. The months passed and I rather forgot about it, but one morning, huge pots of tulips arrived at my door.
An act of kindness has rarely brought me more joy. She knows I adore tulips and love the spring but, more than that, I know she had been thinking about me all that time, ordering the colours she knows I like, and planting them up in pots. She is one of the busiest people I know so it’s not as if she’s hanging around buffing her nails, with the occasional foray to the garden centre. She took time and giving up precious time for somebody else is like giving them a gift; one that is priceless. Every time I look at those tulips, I feel happy and every time I see an act of kindness, however small, I am happier still. I hold kindness as the greatest of virtues.
Years ago, a friend asked me what my new husband was like. I thought for a while and then said he was incredibly kind. That sounds so boring, she laughed. Well, we were very young, at an age when excitement and passion seem the only important things, but excitement is extinguished and passion dies down, so give me kindness any day. And give me a companion who is a friend.
It is not as if kindness is difficult. It takes but a moment; and can be no more than a sympathetic glance, a fleeting smile, a hand held out. It does more to lighten a day than anything else I can think of.
I was on the London Underground during rush hour, the usual sardine tin of people crushed together, and I was carrying a heavy bag. There were so many of us that my feet barely touched the ground and my hands could barely reach a rail for support. I was hot and bothered in a way that only the London Underground can make you feel, when a woman offered me her seat.
“It’s a nightmare when you’re carrying a heavy bag,” she said. I thanked her so many times, she must have thought I was a lunatic, but I still think of that moment of kindness, although it was years ago. And it still makes me feel good.
Which is rather the point. We do good to others when we offer them our most benign attention. In return, we feel better about ourselves. It’s a simple equation but one that we easily forget, so caught up in the stresses of life and the busyness of simply existing, that we are blind to our fellow beings.
Every scrap of research shows that the best way to emotional health and happiness is through helping others. It beats buying a new pair of shoes, however adorable, or a fine dinner, however delicious. And it’s free. The second most effective road to wellbeing is gratitude; to literally count our blessings at the end of each day, rather than dwelling on the darker difficulties of life. We have a roof over our heads, food on our table, and the warm embrace of affection from our friends. Happiness is made up of such ordinary details and yet we forget to pay them attention. We remember the bad, rather than the good.
As a writer of books do I remember the many good reviews? I do not. I focus on the one unkind comment; one that I can quote almost word perfectly whereas the kinder praise is, if not ignored, at least left in the background.
Which, when you think about it, is madness. It is the same with acts of kindness. Our memories of the day can be darkened by a sharp word from a stranger or an angry V-sign flipped at us from driver in another car. What is it about cars that turns people turn into bullies? I have perfectly nice friends who become savage, cursing monsters the moment they get behind a steering wheel, as if they have left their humanity on the pavement.
In the seaside town where I live, after years of being in London, drivers let you pass with a wave and a smile. When it first happened, after a lifetime of negotiating Hyde Park Corner, I was so astonished, I forgot to hit the accelerator and move at all. It still brings me pleasure, every time it happens, and lets me go happily about my business.
When we show kindness, or are its recipients, all seems well with the world and all I have to do is look at the tulips blooming on my balcony to be reminded of that.