The World-Changing Power of Kindness

Photo: Heath Brandon/Flickr.

Tucked away in positive psychology’s list of character strengths is one, little gentle one that, when applied, has the power to improve your day, build healthier relationships, slow aging, improve heart functioning, and make people happy.  That’s what the research shows about kindness.

But the positive power of kindness is even wider and deeper than that.  Embracing, as it does, our inborn empathy for one another, our compassion for suffering, and our longing to contribute in some, small way to the well-being of others, kindness speaks of the best in us.

It’s a quality so profound that the Dalai Lama even named it as the basis for his entire belief system.  “This is my simple religion,” he said; “There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophy.  Our own brain, our heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

Mark Twain said, “Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear, and the blind can read.”   It’s a universal language that speaks to us all.

The Contagious Nature of Kindness

One of the characteristics that positive psychology researchers have recently demonstrated about happiness is its tendency to spread among people.  Reporting on a recent study conducted by James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis, an article in Wired magazine said,  “In findings sure to gladden the heart of anyone who’s ever wondered whether tiny acts of kindness have larger consequences, researchers have shown that generosity is contagious.”

Dr. David R. Hamilton explains the contagious nature of kindness this way:

“I believe that kindness is contagious in three ways. The first is that we feel elevated when someone helps us. We’re on the crest of an emotional wave for a short time and from this state we feel inspired to help other people.

“Depending upon the situation, we might also feel relieved when someone helps us, especially if the situation we’re in is stressful. This reduces the stress or worry and we feel a surge of relief. Stress and worry often obstruct our real nature, which contains strong undercurrents of compassion and kindness. When stress goes away and is replaced with a feeling of relief, we’re more likely to act on opportunities to help others.

“The third way is that when we see someone being kind, something inside tells us that this is what we should be doing and so we are inspired by the observation of another’s kind behaviour. This is called social contagion.”

As Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip said, “Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness  Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”

We do ourselves good with kindnesses given as well.  Acts of kindness increase the happiness of both the person who does the kindness and the recipient of the act.

How to Increase Your Kindness Quotient

You can increase the amount of kindness you spread by simply setting an intention to be kind.  Opportunities to help others are everywhere.

You can find a wonderful list of ways to be kind at Random Acts of Kindness if you need some inspiration.

And here’s a description of a kindness activity from Positive Psych. Webs that you can try out just to see how expressing more kindness impacts your own life:

Perform a new act of kindness each day for a week. Create a list of potential acts of kindness you can do. Use this as a guide but feel free to change it as long as you do a new and different act each day. Reflect upon how you feel after doing each act of kindness and the reaction of the receiver, if applicable.

Note: research has found that the good feelings produced by doing acts of kindness actually last longer if you do all 5 acts in one day rather than spread out throughout the week. (If you do only one a day, it may start to feel like a chore.) Try it both ways and see if this makes a difference for you.

What science is finally confirming is wisdom that, in our hearts, we’ve always known.  Way back in the 4th Century, Saint Basil, Bishop of Cesarea, said, “A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.”

Put the power of kindness to work in your life, beginning right now.

One way to do that would be to pass this article along to your friends.  Do share!

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You may also enjoy: Self-Compassion: Being Your Own Best Friend  – how to be kind to you.

Photo: Heath Brandon/Flickr.


The Meaning of Courage

Man Scaling MountainCourage.  The very word conjures up images of acts of bravery in the face of life-threatening danger.   We envision roaring flames, mountainous drops, raging rivers, a hail of bullets, a screech of wheels, and some heroic soul putting it all on the line to save the life of another or reach the heights.

We love the stories.  They sing of the best in us.  We feel larger just for hearing them.  They inspire us and make us proud that we are human beings.

And rightly so, because each of us is courageous in his or her own way.  You may doubt that, and whisper to yourself, “Not me.”  But let’s talk a little bit about the meaning of courage, and the ways it shows up in our everyday lives.

 A Definition of Courage

The best way to start is to consider a definition of courage.   The one I like best is the one that Robert Biswas-Diener came up with, in his wonderful book The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver:

“Courage,” he says, “is the willingness to act toward a moral and worthwhile goal despite the presence of risk, uncertainty and fear.”

I particularly like it because he adds the phrase “toward a moral and worthwhile goal” to the definition.   It has to “contribute to some good for oneself or others without taking away the dignity or well-being of others,” Biswas-Dienr says.

Not all risk-taking signifies courage.   A mugger might be facing risk, uncertainty and fear; but to call him courageous would be to defame the trait.  Good intent is an essential component of courage.   It’s the part that lets us admire it and that touches us when we see it in action.

Interestingly, it’s that goodness that keeps us from recognizing our own courage.  When Biwas-Diener interviewed courageous people in his research, most of them didn’t see their actions as anything special.   “Anybody would have done the same thing,” they’d tell him.

We’re courageous because it seems like the right thing to do, because it’s what we expect of ourselves, or what we believe that others expect of us.

How to Grow Your Courage

Courage is one of the 24 character strengths identified by positive psychology founders Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman.  And as with all the strengths, you can learn and develop it through practice and attention.

Biswas-Diener found that courage is made up of two processes.   The first part is the willingness to take action, and the second is the ability to control fear.   Developing courage is a matter of learning how to manage fear so it doesn’t prevent you from action, and of finding ways to motivate yourself to act.

Learning to Manage Fear

The first part of learning to be more courageous is learning to handle fear, and Biswas-Diener  offers a wealth of information on how to do just that.

Because a big part of fear is often uncertainty, he suggests that we learn as much as we can about the situation that we’re facing.  Gather facts.  Prepare as best you can.  Rehearse.

Learn to relax so that you can stop “the runaway locomotive of irrational thinking.”  Try mentally putting yourself in the danger you’re imagining and figure out what the best way to handle it would be.  Then rehearse that.   Learn how to do progressive muscle relaxation; practice mindful breathing or youga regularly; practice meditation or prayer.

Surprisingly, one of the ways to overcome fear is to get angry.  It’s the one emotion, Biswas-Diener says, that’s strong enough to overpower fear.  But you need to use it strategically in a limited number of situations.  Otherwise it can backfire.  Anger makes it difficult to think clearly, so you only want to ignite when you need it.

One of the last suggestions you might expect from a scientist is to use magical thinking.  But Biswas-Diener makes a strong and logical case for adopting a talisman—a lucky token of some kind—to bring you “good luck.”  It could be anything from a “lucky” piece of clothing, to a photo, or a stone, or a coin, or a small toy.  Whatever works for you.

He also suggests that you convince yourself that you’re a lucky person.   Tell yourself that you are.  Keep a lucky journal and regularly write down the lucky things that happen to you, such as bumping into an old friend you haven’t seen in ages or finding a ten dollar bill on the ground.  Thinking of yourself as lucky boosts your confidence.

Motivating Yourself To Act

One of the best ways to increase your motivation to act is to think about those who would benefit from your action.  Open yourself to feeling their need and how your action will help them.

If, for example, you’re about to give a speech or presentation and you’re shaking in your boots, think about how useful and worthwhile the information you have to give will be to your audience.

In an excellent article on the types of courage, blogger Brett McKay refers to this other-orientation as moral courage.  He gives this advice for motivating yourself to act:

“Moral courage thrives on empathy and compassion, the ability to understand the needs and hurts of others. .  . If you weekly work with the homeless and poverty-stricken, you will have the courage to fight for policies and programs to help improve their lives.

“Thus, the best way to develop moral courage is through offering regular service to others. When you work with people face to face, you gain the courage not to turn away and to fight for the right thing for them. You will find that this courage will not only apply specifically to the groups of people you directly serve, but will expand your compassion, and thus your courage, to do what is right for all people and in every situation.”

Another way to boost your willingness to act is by putting yourself in brave roles.  Tell yourself that your job is to help others in need or to take initiative and small risks to serve others; then practice acting boldly.

You can avoid being trapped by the bystander effect, where you stand by while someone needs help, by following what Biswas-Diener identifies as The Five Steps to Lending Aid:

  1. Notice the event.
  2. Understand that the event is urgent.
  3. Assume responsibility; decide that you are the one to step in here.
  4. Know what kind of aid to deliver.
  5. Decide to act.

He also tells us that when we’re lending aid and need the help of others, instead of saying “Someone call for an ambulance,” point directly at one person and say, “You! Call for an ambulance.”

Fear of Failure

Few things rob us of our courage more than the fear of failure, especially when the failure will be public.   “By accepting, even actively embracing, the possibility of failure, you can boost your willingness to act and increase your overall courage quotient,” says Biswas-Diener.

Sure, failure is always painful.  But learning to frame it as a part of a larger process, such as learning or developing a skill, can definitely help us cope with it.  Learn to focus on the process that you’re involved in rather than looking at the ways it can go wrong, and keep reminding yourself of what you’ll gain by taking the next step forward.

The Payoff of Courage

Having courage helps you have better relationships, perform better at work, and feel more fulfilled.  But it goes beyond that.  It’s contagious.  Your courage builds courage in others.

In the conclusion of his book, Biswas-Diener shares this beautiful description of why courage matters:

“Of all our basic virtues, courage is the one that helps us to live exactly the way we want and provides the psychological fuel we need to create, take risks, help others, and face hard times.  I am not overstating the case when I say that courageous action is humanity at its finest.”

In expressing the meaning of courage, perhaps poet Maya Angelou says it best:

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.  You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”

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This article is part of a  continuing series based on the 24 Character Strengths.   To find the others, click the “Articles Index” tab at the top of the page and scroll down to “Strengths, Individual.”

If you liked this article, please pass it on.


Photo by jbrindes at stock.xchng



The Positive Power of a Wise Perspective

Wise OwlYou might have noticed, if you are a student of positive psychology,  that I’m writing a series on the 24 Character Strengths identified by  Martin Seligman and the late Chris Peterson, two of the founders of positive psychology.  (You can find the earlier ones by clicking the “Articles Index” at the top of this page and then scrolling down to “Strengths, Individual.”)

This week, I set out to give you some insight into the power of perspective, or wisdom.   It turned out to be a bit of a daunting project.

I started by looking at the description of the strength that accompanies the VIA Character Strength Survey itself.

In its typical fortune-cookie fashion, it says:  “Perspective (Wisdom):  Although you may not think of yourself as wise, your friends hold this view of you. They value your perspective on matters and turn to you for advice. You have a way of looking at the world that makes sense to others and to yourself.”

The more I thought about that, the more questions I had.   What kind of viewpoint would cause people to think of you as wise and to seek your counsel?  What is it about your way of looking at things that “makes sense”?  And what does “making sense” mean, anyway?  That it’s logical?  Certainly wisdom is more than that.

A Definition of Wisdom

Happily, after a bit of digging, I came across a definition of wisdom that “made sense” to me.  It rang true.  And as I would later discover, the ability to perceive truth is one of the qualities of wisdom.

Its author is Dr. Caroline Bassett, founder of The Wisdom Institute:

“Wisdom,” she says, “is having sufficient awareness in various situations and contexts to act in ways that enhance our common humanity.”

Dr. Bassett has made a life-study of wisdom.  And one of the most engaging aspects of her discussion about it is that she brings it down to earth.  Despite the loftiness of the word, she helps her reader understand that wisdom can be homey, practical, and within the reach of us all.

Four Kinds of Wisdom

In an article about the wisdom she discovered in some elderly people whom she interviewed, Dr. Bassett outlines four different kinds, or levels, of wisdom.

“There is a difference in kinds of wisdom,” she says.  “In my research on wisdom, I have found four different kinds or levels of it, the difference arising with the complexity and/or the scope of the situation.”

  • She describes the first kind of wisdom as “Prudence.”   This is the kind of small-scale, personal wisdom that we think of as caution, an awareness of the dangers or threats involved in situation.   It’s prudent, for example, not to take your credit card with you to the mall if you’re trying to contain your spending.
  • The second kind of wisdom, which Dr. Bassett calls “Ever After, is experience-based, and is about predicting the consequences of our actions.   When you have to make a decision, your past experience helps you to figure out how each choice is it is likely to play out in the long run.
  • The third type of wisdom, “A Good Thing Now and in the Future,” is broader and more complex. It involves identifying an idea that’s good right now and will also have a positive impact in the future.  Literacy for all, says Dr. Bassett, is one example of this kind of wisdom.
  • The final one is the most complex and wide ranging of the four.  And here we run into the concept of perspective.  It means seeing both the whole and the parts, seeing not only the consequences, but the patterns.  Dr. Bassett calls it “Standing on the Mountain.”  It considers the long-range impact of our actions on all who may be affected by them.

How to Develop a Wise Perspective

At her website, The Wisdom Institute, Dr. Bassett shares her model of wisdom and, in describing the four aspects that all wisdom contains, offers the questions we can ask ourselves to develop our own wise perspective of live.

  • On a cognitive level, we can ask: What’s really going on?  What’s true?  What’s important?  And what’s right?  This is where we’re striving to be objective, and seek to understand patterns and relationships.
  • On the affective, or feeling level, we’re striving to be open, non-judgmental  and generous of spirit.  Here we ask: Whose point of view am I taking?  How does someone else understand reality?  How can I relate to them?
  • On the action level, were seeking involvement and making a commitment to action for the common good.  The questions we can ask are: What guides my actions?  To what ends are my actions direct?
  • And, finally, on the reflective level, we’re seeking integrity and the ability to see beyond ourselves and to recognize our interdependence with others.  Here we ask:  What are my values?  How do I live them?  Who or what is the “I” that I think I am?  What am I part of?

The Wisdom Institute is a genuine treasure, and I heartily recommend that you explore it and enjoy all that it offers.

Another Perspective

If you’re intrigued and want to delve more deeply into the topic of wisdom as a means of broadening your perspective, you won’t want to miss The Wisdom Page.

It’s the richest source of information that I’ve been able to find on the web.  It contains a self-study course, wisdom tools, books, reviews, research, links to wisdom-related blogs, and more.

It strongly promotes meditation, secular or otherwise, as a means of calming your mind to find wisdom.

If you have nine minutes, this video will give you an introduction to the site by its late founder, Copthorne “Cop” Macdonald, and explain why meditation is key:

Having a wise perspective of life, in essence, means being thoughtful and considering what is good for ourselves and others, both now and in the long run.

According to the Wisdom Page, it’s associated with over 48 positive human characteristics, among them: compassion, a positive attitude, empathy, curiosity, a willingness to risk, truthfulness, and generosity.

In Dr. Bassett’s words, “wisdom is about what matters and what we do about it. It’s a real-life process that makes the most of human flourishing.”   It’s the perspective that makes life impactful and worthwhile.

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Seeing with Fresh Eyes: The Power of Curiosity

Baby Blues“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.”  ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

If I could change Mrs. Roosevelt’s beautiful wish in one little way, I would insert the word “undying” before “curiosity.”   Curiosity is a gift that we’re all given at birth.  The trick is to keep it alive as we mature.

Instead of seeing with fresh eyes, we see through a veil of memory and assumptions as we become familiar with the world.  By reviving our sense of curiosity, we can penetrate that veil, see things anew, quicken our interest in the world around us and make new discoveries.

Positive psychology tells us that curiosity (along with gratitude, optimism, zest, and the ability to love and be loved) is one of the five character strengths that contribute most to our sense of life-satisfaction.  It links to all of the areas that positive psychology founder Martin Seligman identifies as key to a life of flourishing: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement.

And George Mason University psychology professor, Todd Kashdan, agrees.  His book on the topic is titled, Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. In an interview with Kathryn Britton for Positive Psychology News Daily,  Kashdan says:

“In my book, I call curiosity the engine of growth. You can’t find your passions or purpose in life without trial and error experimentation. Curiosity is a mechanism that helps you create and discover meaning in your life.”

The Benefits of Curiosity

When she called curiosity “the most useful gift,” Mrs. Roosevelt revealed her keen powers of observation.  Exercising curiosity brings us a host of benefits:

  • It’s fun!   The new experiences that curiosity brings us are a source of stimulation and pleasure.
  • By letting us see even familiar things with fresh eyes, it lets us find new meanings in the familiar.
  • Curiosity roots us in the present.  It lets us be more open, engaged, and to exercise our creativity by making new connections between things.
  • Curiosity fuels creativity and innovation.
  • Contributes to neurological health and may even reverse natural degeneration in older adults.  “In short, a regular dose of the unexpected helps keep your brain healthy.”
  • It make you smarter.
  • Curiosity about others keeps relationship open, interesting, more vital.  And it makes forming new relationships easier.
  • Curiosity increases your happiness level.   “The more curiosity you can muster for something, the more likely you are to notice and learn about it, and thus the more interesting and meaningful it will become for you over time.”

How to Revive Your Curiosity

If  your sense of curiosity has dimmed—or trained out you by someone who told you not to be so nosy!—don’t despair.

In his interview with Britton, Kashdan says, “Curiosity is strength people can wield. I can decide to go and seek new things. I can decide to look at a person from new perspectives. I can ask somebody about what they were like before I met them. I can ask my romantic partner what she does when I’m not there.”

So one key is to seek out new things.  Add more novelty to your day.   Get out of your rut.  Try doing things differently.  Take a different route to work.  Sit in a different chair or a different part of the room than usually do.  Park in a different part of the parking lot.  Make a game of discovering ten new things that you notice or experience, or that you experience differently.

Accept the scariness of doing something new, of taking risks.  Go in baby steps.  Try labeling the feeling of “scary” as “excitement” instead.

Think of yourself as an explorer, a detective, an adventurer.

Look for the details that most people miss.

People watch in a restaurant or mall.   What does a person’s dress, or posture, or facial expression tell you about them?   Why do you think so?  Is your assessment likely to be true? Where did your judgments originate?  Are they likely to be true?

After you watch a movie or TV show or read a book, ask yourself, “ What did I discover from that experience?  What did I learn?”

Above all, learn to ask questions.  “Curiosity is questioning. By training your brain to question more, you can train your brain to be more curious,” the folks at New and Improved suggest in a newsletter issue about energizing curiosity.

They give these great tips for learning to question more:

  • The great sage Alex Trebek, the host of the TV game show Jeopardy, provides great wisdom every time he says, “Please phrase it in the form of a question.”  We can use that advice to put our problems in jeopardy of going away by phrasing them as a question. Twist your complaint (I work too much.) to a question (How might I work less? In what ways could I make work more fun?) Read more about this technique here.
  • When you hear someone say “it can’t be”, ask, “why not?” Our colleague and genius researcher Andy Aleinikov likes to say “’Why not’ every not.”
  • Hang a reminder question on your bathroom mirror: “What am I curious about today?” or “What am I interested in learning about today?”
  • Google or Yahoo search “Curiosity” and see what you find. (Make sure your cat is nowhere near your computer screen when you do this.)

What would happen if you put some of these suggestions to work in your life?  Are you curious about finding out?  Do you wonder how the world would look if you were seeing through fresh eyes?

Do you know somebody else who would enjoy reading this article?  I’m curious: Will you share it?

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