• The Inner Revolution of Kindness

The Inner Revolution of Kindness

“The path to our happy place starts with one choice: whether or not to be kind. Especially when we really don’t want to be.” Shaunti Feldhahn [1]

We all want to be happy, this is self-evident. My intention in this article is to share the growing evidence that supports the practice of kindness, compassion and service to others as the most robust way to experience one’s own personal happiness, increase one’s successful recovery from addiction, and not only increase levels of marital satisfaction but actually save your marriage. Citings are from western psychotherapy, sociology, the 12 Step system of recovery, and Buddhist sources. To learn more, click here.

Recently, I’ve seen more and more references to the practice of kindness as a way out of the self-perpetuated suffering we experience as self-obsessed humans. We have all heard of the Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Mathew 7:12) Over the past five years, there have been more and more empirically-based studies that show how performing acts of kindness helps everyone live more satisfying, engaging lives.

Kindness, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is the state of being affectionate, loving, helpful, solicitous, forbearing, sympathetic and gentle. But according to Anita Roddick, the insightful Founder of The Body Shop, who single-handedly pushed the cosmetics industry forward into a new era with her insistence on cruelty-free products, kindness should be much thicker-skinned: It can be “fierce, tenacious … and sometimes positively revolutionary.” [2]

And this assessment groks with what I have learned in my Buddhist studies as well as in the 12 Step approach to recovery: that true compassion and kindness are action-based. But however we choose to express kindness, the findings are good news for everyone: lending a helping hand, or even developing the wish to be more helpful, elevates people’s moods and creates the deeper bonding that is so essential for health and wellness.

“It’s more of an attitude change – being alert to things you can do for other people and doing them spontaneously because you want to do them. It has a side effect of making you feel good,” says Lynn Alden, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia (and one of the authors of the following study). We are “hard-wired,” she says, to value one another’s happiness. “When others are happy, kind of through emotional contagion, we feel happier.”

Dr. Alden’s study monitored 115 participants with high levels of social anxiety. It found that people who normally avoid social situations, due to anxiety, had their fears alleviated when they began performing acts of kindness for other people. This was true even if the act was a simple one, such as doing a roommate’s dishes or mowing a neighbor’s lawn. Seeing how their kindness benefitted another person raised their own happiness level, and it also made them engage more easily with the person. [3]

The more diversity in the acts, the more beneficial performing them will be. Kathryn Buchanan, a professor at University of Kent, found that “the success of kind acts may be due to the potential element of novelty counteracting adaptation effects” that occur when repeating similar acts of kindness “Volunteering is one of the most rewarding acts of kindness anyone can do, because it not only helps someone in need and makes the volunteer feel good about themselves, but it opens the volunteer’s eyes. One thing I remember from all of my experience volunteering is that I realized how lucky I am.”

Those of us who have had the good fortune to work with the 12 Steps know this as a daily fact. Our recovery has been intimately connected to looking straight into the face of addictions’ self-centeredness, and with the help of community and one’s Higher Power, finding that it is not only possible but essential in turning our addiction—and therefore our lives—around. The 12th Step is all about offering the message of AA through selfless service: “that we would need to give constantly of ourselves without thought of repayment.” Then we see “…the proof that love freely given surely brings a full return, the certainty that we are no longer isolated and alone in self-constructed prisons…these are (some of the) permanent and legitimate satisfactions of right living…” [4]

In an article entitled “The Secret to a Happy Marriage: Small Acts of Kindness,” Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, suggests doing deeds that strengthen “existing social ties.” “A generous marriage makes both the giver and the receiver happy. Kind acts help engender a sense of gratitude, which research shows is linked to positive feelings. And the giver benefits from the altruism, another important factor in studies of well-being.” 

That’s the finding of his recent study by the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, examining the role of generosity in marriages. Defined as “the virtue of giving good things to one’s spouse freely and abundantly,” such thoughtfulness adds a new dimension to our understanding of how couples can build a strong, stable partnership, say the researchers. Their questions were directed in three areas. Did spouses offer small kindnesses to each other? Did they regularly express affection? Were they able to forgive? The researchers claim that this is the first empirical study of generosity.

“The generous marriage has a much greater chance of being a happy one. The secret to marital happiness may be as simple as making your spouse tea in the morning. Turning down his side of the bed. Giving her a back rub. Small acts of kindness are not just what we should be practising in the world at large, it would seem, but also right in our homes. And they can turn around a marriage that is on the brink of failing.”

So if this is the news we keep hearing about, what keeps us from putting it into practice? This conundrum is addressed very clearly in Buddhist teachings. As practitioners, we work to develop a fierce, urgent commitment to cultivating a vast and unbiased compassion as the cornerstone to enlightenment. We spend a good deal of time contemplating the true origin of suffering, so that we can develop the wisdom to take “right action” in the world. But the teachings include an essential component: the recognition that we, as humans, have a very hard time facing the reality of suffering, mine or anyone else’s. It’s just too painful. And so we slip back into deluded states, and rely on transitory things to satisfy us temporarily. It’s so much “easier” to focus on what seems okay in the world or the relationship, living in what Trungpa Rinpoche calls the safety of one’s cocoon, than to see suffering in all its guises, including a marriage or a friend “slowly going dead.”

Compassion’s strength, offers Sharon Salzberg in her wonderful and well-know book, Loving-Kindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness, “arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name justice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal.” [6] That kind of “bearing witness” also requires empathy. While sympathy says, “I’m sorry this is happening to you,” empathy says, “Help me understand what is happening to you.” Practicing empathy helps one grow, and takes practice.

Therefore, kindness and compassion, put into practice, takes real courage! And further, there’s the important idea that by courageously facing, even feeling, the extent of how deeply I and all beings suffer, one can more solidly form a pure intention and resolve to lessen suffering in any way one can. Because, according to the Buddha, the only way to personal happiness and liberation is through the quest that all beings find happiness and liberation.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama is so skilled at doing, he brings the focus back to very practical, here and now concerns: “Cultivating a more compassionate attitude has the effect of opening the mind. Having a calm and compassionate mind enables us to use our natural intelligence more effectively. Without a more holistic perspective it’s difficult to appreciate the reality of a given situation and without that any action we take is likely to be unrealistic and therefore unsuccessful.” (From a recent post on his Facebook page)

Makes sense…think of others as much as or even more than oneself, cultivate one’s native intelligence from experiencing a calm and compassionate state of mind, then follow through with some positive action…and watch one’s mental, emotional, spiritual and even physical state improve. And perhaps, the spark of altruism lights the even bigger fire of spiritual practice. Let’s try it and see what happens!!!

[1] http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Kindness-Challenge.pdf
[2] http://www.msmagazine.com/sept03/kort.asp
[3] http://www.today.com/kindness/secret-happiness-acts-kindness-says-new-study-t30021

[4] 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, p. 116 and p.124

[5] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/relationships/the-secret-to-a-happy-marriage-small-acts-of-kindness/article1357638/
[6] Loving-Kindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness, copyright 1995 by Sharon Salzberg, Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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