I’ve always loved the quote by Audrey Hepburn: ‘For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.’ All this seems to have been brought into sharp focus lately, with scary world events – and a massive humanitarian crisis. Never have we needed kindness so much, I feel.
Recently I had my heart well and truly warmed while presenting the prizes at a North London junior school (dearly wishing either of my parents was still around to marvel at this most unlikely of scenarios, since my own school career was less-than-distinguished. But that’s another story). Yes, there were the usual prizes for sports achievement, and French, and reading – but what truly touched me was the prize given annually to one young woman in each and every class for kindness. How utterly marvellous is that? Because in the grand scheme of things, I reckon being kind is probably far more important than knowing the capital of Peru or Pythagorus’s wretched theorem.
And it got me thinking about how rarely ‘kindness’ is so rarely mentioned in the workplace, where most of us spend our days – and how it really ought to be. In the cut-throat, go-go-go, get-ahead modern world of business, we hear much about drive, ambition, hard work – to the point that showing kindness could even, I suspect, be regarded as weakness in some offices, where ruthlessness often seems to be prized as a beacon of ambition. But I think there’s a definite place for it – and that we should be doing all we can to create and nurture a kinder environment. I like the quote from Kahlil Gibran (my mother’s favourite poet, FYI), that ‘tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.’
Kindness can be expressed in all sorts of ways at work. It can be kindness towards a colleague: not being ‘too busy’ to have a coffee or offer a shoulder to cry on when they’re having a hard time at work or at home, or a member of their family is ill. (This, in particular, puts huge stress on people and it can be incredibly touching when someone offers to take on part of a workload, or offers to cover some of their hours.) It can be collective ‘kindness’ – which for me might be a CSR activity: getting a team together to raise money for charity (a 10k race, something for Sports Aid), or painting the day room at an old age people’s shelter, or a hostel for the homeless. (The upshot of which invariably, in my opinion, is a sense of appreciation and gratitude for our own lot – which makes a welcome change from the ‘envy culture’ that’s so prevalent.)
Or it could be opening doors for a colleague – literally or metaphorically. (People who are truly secure in their roles, I find, are always happy to help others up the ladder. It’s those with inner insecurities who play their cards close to their chest, and seem reluctant to smooth the path for colleagues to rise, in my experience.)
I certainly very much like the initiative taken by 35-year-old Primrose Kaur, a security officer at an airport who’s come to my attention, who made it her mission to commit five acts of random kindness each day. These are mostly non-work gestures: paying for the coffee of the person in the queue behind her, flexing her credit card to pay for an OAP’s groceries, or just telling someone how wonderful they look. (I’m always doing this to strangers, and don’t give a damn that it sometimes gets me a weird look – most of the time, I get a Cheshire cat grin in response.) I’m tempted to say that the random act of kindness the public really want from Primrose is to be allowed through security with the expensive Lancôme moisturiser they forgot to put in a see-thru plastic bag, rather than having it confiscated – but you get Primrose’s drift. What’s needed, Primrose believes, is a ‘kindness offensive’. And hats (shoes and belt) off to her, frankly.
The thing about kindness is that it pays double-dividends – because the ‘giver’ as well as the person who’s on the receiving end benefits profoundly. Two recent studies published in the Journal of Social Psychology in the UK suggested that giving to other people makes us happier than spending on ourselves. In one study, participants took part in a survey measuring life satisfaction, and assigned 86 people taking part to three different groups. Group one had to perform a daily act of kindness for 10 days. Group two was asked to do something new on those days. And group three had no instructions. After 10 days, the researchers asked participants to complete the ‘life satisfaction’ questionnaire again – and those who practiced kindness or engaged in novel acts experienced a significant boost in happiness.
All this reminds me of the comment that nobody ever went to their grave wishing they’d spent more time in the office. Is there anyone out there, really, who’d rather be remembered as ambitious than kind…? I’m not often given to quoting Henry James in these e-pages, but here goes: ‘Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.’
Something which we could probably all do with remembering, on a daily – if not five-times-daily – basis. So: here’s to a kinder 2016…