Why being kind matters

I have always believed that a community should be kind towards one another. When mistakes have been made, we have to acknowledge our mistakes and instead of being punished for them, look to see how we can make it better.

I was therefore saddened to read in the paper last weekend that kindness appears to be in decline. Analysis of annual surveys of American college students showed a substantial drop from 1979 to 2009 in empathy, and the ability to imagine the perspectives of others. Its not just that people care less, they seem to be helping less too. Achievement and happiness of individuals seem to be more important drivers than concern and care for others. Being kind in a fiercely competitive world can be seen as a source of weakness.

Overemphasising individual achievements may breed competitiveness, with a resulting decline in compassion. But I don’t think focusing on one obfuscates the other. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests generous people earn higher incomes than that of their less generous peers. This may be because the meaning they find in helping others helps to broader learning, deeper relationships and ultimately to greater creativity and productivity.

Neuroscientists have found that generosity activates rewards centres in our brains. Being kind to others improves our mental well-being. It stops our obsession with ourselves as we are encouraged to look outwards rather than inward. Evolutionary biologists observe that we are wired to help others, indeed Darwin wrote that a tribe of people who “Were always ready to aid one another would be victorious over most other tribes and this would be natural selection”.

Of course, we should be encouraging pupils in schools to do their best and to take pride in their work, but kindness doesn’t require sacrificing these aims. To me the real test of a good school is not what the pupils achieve in a set of examination results, but who they become and how they treat others. By emphasising the importance of kindness and the joy of its reciprocity, we are not just setting up our girls for success, we are also setting up success for the people around them.

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