Inspiration short #16: Practice random acts of kindness

Mark Twain once said, “The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer someone else up.” Indeed, practicing kindness and selflessness towards others marks the basis of nearly all religions – and for a good reason to. When we are kind and caring, we find that sense of goodness and purity of heart that elevates our experience out of the mundane and marks our days with a sense of the most sacred and true purpose. In the end, it is really the thing that matters to us most – whether our lives have somehow benefited, in any small way, the lives of others. When we tune in to our deepest motives, it must be this desire – to have somehow aided or improved the world around us – to “matter” –  that has truly directed our actions and shaped our path in life.

What is most difficult, however, is that we can become so engrossed with the bigger picture of this motive that we forget the profound effects of the small and the simple. It is continually a sense of bitter irony to me that in the name of a just cause or purpose, people might practice great carelessness and cruelty in their daily encounters with others – justifying their actions with the nobleness of their greater purpose.

No, it is not our bigger causes that do our lives justice, but in the end the smallest ones. As William Wordsworth said, “the best portion of a good man’s life [are] his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.”If you doubt this, simply ask yourself if you’ve ever had a terrible day turned completely around by a simple kind gesture from a stranger? I am sure all of us have. Just at the moment we feel we must despair in the world around us, someone smiles in a particularly genuine and heart-felt way, or compliments our shoes, or makes some little effort that fills just the right spot in our hearts to renew our faith in the goodness of the world.

And the effect of this almost never stops with us, but ripples outwards, as our cheered spirits then warm those that we come in contact with. As Amelia Earhart said, “No kind action ever stops with itself. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” Indeed, research from the British Medical Journal found that if a person in a social circle becomes happier or more cheerful, everyone within that social circle experiences an increase of up to 9% in their own happiness levels. Just imagine, then, what a profound impact the cheering of just 1 person might have as the effect ripples outwards?

But perhaps the most wonderful thing about being kind is that it teaches us to be kind to ourselves as well. Depression is a common affliction these days – and I wonder if partly stems from the greater value placed on accomplishment and self-improvement in our culture than on charity and service to others. For when I think most deeply about depression, I find that what really marks it is the sense that one cannot possibly be of use to anyone else and a loss of ability to connect. That inner most desire to feel useful in the world is constantly antagonized by the belief that one is not good enough – which leads to isolation and loneliness as the thoughts of inadequacy block out all awareness of the world around. While it might not be welcome advice when we feel down to be told we should snap out of it and think of others, it might be tremendously useful to remind ourselves or anyone we know who is feeling down, that we all matter in a profound way simply because we can be kind to others.

So in the name of creating a beautiful ripple of goodwill, kindness and cheerfulness out into the world, I urge you  to go out and practice being randomly, simply and genuinely kind. Hold the door for a stranger, compliment a friend, offer to help someone with a task, do something kind each and everyday for another. For as the Dalai Lama said, “There isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion.” And even if the recipient isn’t benefited at first glance, you surely will be.