article7 min read

Lessons in kindness

Kindness: it's something we’re all familiar with, and something many of us value now more than ever. But what exactly is kindness and why is it so important for us as humans?

Kindness describes any actions that are intended to benefit others.1 This includes the seemingly small things, like giving someone your attention, remembering a birthday or thanking someone sincerely. It is making an improvement, even a very minor one, to the life of someone you come into contact with.

The kindness paradox

There is a wealth of evidence for the benefits of kindness. For individuals, these include increased psychological wellbeing [1] and enhanced longevity;2 for groups, reduced anxiety,3 fewer punitive actions against others,4 reduced employee turnover 5 and improved perception of leadership 6 and trust.7 In fact, just witnessing kindness encourages people to act for the common good.8 Research we have carried out here at Positive supports this: we have found that staff who feel their line managers care about their wellbeing score significantly higher across all wellbeing and performance metrics.

Staff who feel their line managers care about their wellbeing score significantly higher across all wellbeing and performance metrics.

Despite this, it seems we tend towards incivility and frankness in the ways we live and work. Christine Porath reported that incidents of workplace incivility have risen from under half in 1998 to 62% in 2016.9 We only need to open our computers and witness the internet’s call-out culture and bitter cynicism for support of this. There are numerous stories of individuals who have had their lives destroyed because of innocent mistakes online, or posts that have been taken out of context. Or think of Caroline Flack… What we need is a vaccine, an antidote. We need to change our understanding of kindness and start casting it as an imperative rather than a ‘nice-to-have’, or worse – a sign of weakness. But how?

Empathy and compassion

The process starts with acceptance. We are never as kind as we want to be. Adam Smith argued that our failure to live up to the standards we set is the result of self-deception and a lack of self-knowledge.10 If we want to remedy this blind spot, the brain is a good place to start. Many people don’t realise that kindness involves two important stages, empathy and compassion, and that each has its own unique neurophysiological profile.11 Empathy is when we feel someone else’s pain; compassion is when we understand their perspective.12 Feeling comes first – it has what is known as neurological primacy. You can’t force anyone to feel the pain of another; it is activated automatically and implicitly, and it happens particularly readily when we see someone we care about in pain. It is not so quick to jump to attention with people we don’t know, and even slower if we don’t like them.13 This is the second thing to note about kindness: we are less likely to be kind to people we do not know or like.

Knowing this might have you praying for more empathy in the world, but empathy has its downsides, as Paul Bloom highlighted brilliantly in his essay, ‘Against Empathy’.14 If we take on too much of other people’s suffering, we can experience ‘empathy fatigue’. Empathy fatigue is when repeated exposure to the pain of others exhausts us, reducing our ability to help. Therefore, our third lesson is that too much empathy paralyses action. When it comes to kindness, at some point we need to pull the empathy handbrake – to shift away from feeling and start understanding so that we can effectively do something.

Empathy has its downsides… If we take on too much of other people’s suffering, we can experience “empathy fatigue”

Paul Gilbert, in his book The Compassionate Mind, contends that when we switch from focusing on what it would feel like if this was happening to us, to what it must be like for them, we reduce the risk of empathy fatigue and empower ourselves to act.15 Interestingly, research has shown that when subjects are put in a brain scanner and asked to take this ‘compassionate focus’, we see very different areas light up in the brain to those that are implicated in feeling. A particularly famous study around this involves the molecular biologist turned Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard. The researchers, with Ricard in a brain scanner, confronted him with examples of human suffering and instructed him to feel empathically for them. They found that particular areas of the brain became activated, and Ricard reported quickly becoming exhausted. However, a totally different picture emerged when he was asked to focus on compassionate thoughts: different areas of the brain sprang into life and he reported feelings of warmth and positivity alongside a desire to help.16 Although the literature is small, there is evidence to suggest that compassion training – a deliberate focus on alleviating the pain of others – leads to a greater tendency towards kindness.17 This emphasises our fourth lesson, kindness is founded in detachment – but there is one further complication to consider.

The challenge of kindness

If kindness simply requires a switch of focus from a 1st to 3rd person perspective, then why do we so often fail to be kind? Individual personality differences aside, this is because the brain regions that support compassion also support our most complex behaviours: solving novel and demanding problems, navigating complicated social situations, regulating our attention, pursuing abstract goals and values. These behaviours require a huge amount of energy and resource, meaning that if our basic human needs are not being met, or if we are stressed, threatened or exhausted, compassion becomes a cognitive challenge of epic proportions! There is a mound of evidence supporting this assertion: make someone feel socially excluded, they become less generous;18 the hungrier people are, the less charitable they become;19 when people are stressed or pressured, they are less likely to notice people in need.20 Our final lesson is hardly ground-breaking, but it’s important to acknowledge: compassion is difficult. Kindness enriches precisely to the degree that it is difficult. To be truly kind we have to take a healthy self-interest, reflecting on the impact of our state on our behaviour. It requires emotional literacy, attentional focus, a protective mindset and deep, nourishing social connections. Most of all it demands that we take care of ourselves. The journey to kindness starts with you.

Kindness enriches precisely to the degree that it is difficult.

To be kind is both one of our most ‘primitive attributes’ 21 and our ‘highest potentialities’;22 it improves our wellbeing and fosters an affiliative, collaborative and connected culture at work. We are never as kind as we want to be, but to be human is to keep trying anyway. Sometimes we will fall at the first hurdle and won’t feel empathy; other times we might be so overcome and fatigued by empathy or stress that compassion cannot commence; on rare opportunities empathy will catalyse compassion and we will be kind. But always, the courage to continue is what counts.

5 lessons in kindness

  1. Kindness involves two stages, empathy and compassion. Empathy is feeling someone else’s pain; compassion is understanding their perspective.
  2. We are naturally less likely to be kind to people we don’t know or like.
  3. You can have too much of a good thing. If we share too much of other people’s suffering we can end up with ’empathy fatigue’, which actually makes us less able to help.
  4. There is evidence to suggest that detachment – focusing on compassion rather than empathy – leads to a greater tendency towards kindness.
  5. The brain regions that support compassion also support our most complex behaviours. This means that compassion isn’t easy, and it becomes more difficult still if we’re not looking after ourselves both physically and mentally.


  1. Curry, O. S., Rowland, L. A., Van Lissa, C. J., Zlotowitz, S., McAlaney, J., & Whitehouse, H. (2018). Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 320-329.

  2. Konrath, S., Fuhrel-Forbis, A., Lou, A., & Brown, S. (2012). Motives for volunteering are associated with mortality risk in older adults. Health Psychology, 31(1), 87.

  3. Lilius, J. M., Worline, M. C., Maitlis, S., Kanov, J., Dutton, J. E., & Frost, P. (2008). The contours and consequences of compassion at work. Journal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior, 29(2), 193-218.

  4. Condon, P., & DeSteno, D. (2011). Compassion for one reduces punishment for another. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(3), 698-701.

  5. Grant, A. M., Dutton, J. E., & Rosso, B. D. (2008). Giving commitment: Employee support programs and the prosocial sensemaking process. Academy of management journal, 51(5), 898-918.

  6. Melwani, S., Mueller, J. S., & Overbeck, J. R. (2012). Looking down: The influence of contempt and compassion on emergent leadership categorizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(6), 1171.

  7. Frost, P. J., Dutton, J. E., Worline, M. C., & Wilson, A. (2000). Narratives of compassion in organizations. Emotion in organizations, 2, 25-45.

  8. Haidt, J. (2002). ” Dialogue between My Head and My Heart”: Affective Influences on Moral Judgment. Psychological Inquiry, 13(1), 54-56.

  9. Porath, C. (2016). The hidden toll of workplace incivility. The McKinsey Quarterly.

  10. Smith, A. (1759). The theory of moral sentiments, ed. DD Raphael & AL Macfie. Liberty Fund.(Original work published in 1759.)[ELK].

  11. Cutler, J., & Campbell-Meiklejohn, D. (2019). A comparative fMRI meta-analysis of altruistic and strategic decisions to give. Neuroimage, 184, 227-241.

  12. Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: an evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological bulletin, 136(3), 351.

  13. Gutsell, J. N., & Inzlicht, M. (2010). Empathy constrained: Prejudice predicts reduced mental simulation of actions during observation of outgroups. Journal of experimental social psychology, 46(5), 841-845.

  14. Bloom, P. (2017). Against empathy: The case for rational compassion. Random House.

  15. Gilbert, P. (2010). The compassionate mind (Compassion focused therapy). Constable. ISBN-10, 1849010986.

  16. Ricard, M., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2014). Mind of the meditator. Scientific American, 311(5), 38-45.

  17. Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Ricard, M., & Singer, T. (2014). Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 9(6), 873-879.

  18. Twenge, J. M., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Ciarocco, N. J., & Bartels, J. M. (2007). Social exclusion decreases prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(1), 56.

  19. Briers, B., Pandelaere, M., Dewitte, S., & Warlop, L. (2006). Hungry for money: The desire for caloric resources increases the desire for financial resources and vice versa. Psychological science, 17(11), 939-943.

  20. Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. D. (1973). ” From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 27(1), 100.

  21. Thomas, L. (1979). On magic in medicine. The Journal of the American Dental Association, 98(1), 157-158.


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