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World Kindness Day

The power of acts of kindness: “If it wasn’t for Betty, I’d probably be in the house all the time." Earlier this year we asked people to share stories of acts of kindness that they had experienced that had made a difference to them, and we’ve been listening out through the year for other stories of kindness and loneliness.

By Hannah Thornton · November 15, 2018

Earlier this year we asked people to share stories of acts of kindness that they had experienced that had made a difference to them, and we’ve been listening out through the year for other stories of kindness and loneliness.

On World Kindness Day we wanted to share some of what we’ve learned about gathering stories about kindness, about carrying out acts of kindness and connection, and about the impact that they can have on loneliness.

Anyone can be kind, and working in any job can make an impact

It goes without saying that anyone can be kind, but a number of the stories we came across demonstrated the opportunities that people have to be kind in their every day lives and particularly through work. Wendy is a dog walker for Karen, and they have become friends, and Wendy brings her grandchildren round to visit, even coming to walk the dog and see Karen on Christmas day, while Sioned told us about the men who run her local post office and make time to chat with their customers, and about the supermarket employee who she jokes with every week and who gave her a birthday card which lifted her spirits when she was feeling down. These stories echo those found in other research: the Carnegie Trust found kindness by staff and taking the time to chat with customers was encouraged by Tesco in Glasgow, and that employees felt empowered to be kind.

The interactions employees have with customers can sometimes be the only time that an individual talks to someone all day or all week, and they can make a difference: David works for a utilities company and talked to us about a recent customer who told him he had applied for an offer because he knew that it meant someone would come to the house to talk to him, and he wouldn’t see anyone else all week. David spent an hour chatting with him over a cup of tea and hearing fascinating tales about his younger life in the circus. Not all employees have the scope to take an hour, but as Sioned said about Yousif and Yassar “I always come out feeling more cheerful than when I went in – they’re as speedy as anyone else, but it really feels like they’ve given you their time.”

One kindness can lead to another

Several of the people we’ve spoken to talked of ‘returning the favour’ or of passing the kindness on. Early in this project, one member of the team posted on social media how she still remembered a couple of times when a few kind words from a supportive stranger have made her cry but really helped (parenting small children can be really tough sometimes!), and how she still tries to do the same when she sees other people in the same position. A day or so after, she saw a friend on social media say something very similar. Some of the conversations we had demonstrated this ripple effect too. Betty and Sandra met for the first time in a library, both new to the area. Betty was struggling to use the automated machine in the library and Sandra helped her out. They got chatting and Betty persuaded Sandra to go along to a coffee morning in the library – Sandra said that she wouldn’t have gone alone, but Betty helped her to have the confidence to go “if it wasn’t for Betty, I’d probably be in the house all the time.”

Kindness can change relationships, but only if people want them to

One of the barriers that has been raised in some research about kindness in communities has been that people are worried that by helping out neighbours in particular, it will change the relationship and put unwanted demands to do more. None of the conversations we’ve had have indicated that this has been the case. For some people, friendships have built up following acts of kindness (Anne and Alan talk to each other every day on the phone since she started phoning him after his wife died), and in some cases help has continued as part of a friendship, but often the act of kindness has been a one off thing. Where help has been continued, it’s become a reciprocal thing, with the person who initially helped giving as much as they receive, whether in practical ways or other ways. In other cases, all the kindness has meant is that the person has a greater respect for the person who was kind without fundamentally changing the relationship.

People do remember

Although people have often found it difficult to recall or tell us about times that they received kindness or support, when we talk deeper, people can tell us of examples. They might not be willing to share them publicly or for us to contact the person involved, but they do remember. One woman told us of a neighbour who cooked a meal the day she moved into her new house almost forty years ago, another of a neighbour who helped her when she was going through a stressful time.

Carrying out acts of kindness benefits the giver as well as the receiver

Research that has been carried out into acts of kindness has often focused around the impact on the giver, because it is difficult to find recipients of kindness or reliably evaluate the benefits. There is research that indicates that carrying out acts of kindness improves our mental wellbeing. Our conversations also indicate that being kind and helping out makes people feel good, but this wasn’t a key motivator.

“It does give me pleasure to do these things. I don’t seek pleasure, it’s not like I do it to get pleasure, it’s just something in your nature that you do.”

Everyday kindness is less easy to identify than formal volunteering

We were really interested in understanding the impact of small acts of kindness, individual to individual, and these type of acts were difficult to for people to identify and report. We asked people to think of someone who has done something kind, friendly or helpful for them or someone close to them, whether it’s a shop assistant who’s really friendly and gives people time, someone who’s helped out in a crisis or someone who’s just been neighbourly and done things like popped to the shops for a neighbour in the snow.

People were easily able to share stories of people who help the community in general: people who start up groups, volunteer formally, and even think of people who have helped other people (and people were very keen to share stories of times when they themselves have been kind to other people), but often struggle to think of examples of when they have been on the receiving end of an act of kindness. In some cases this seems to be because we’ve not managed to explain the concept (or sometimes people have a clear idea in their head of someone that they want to nominate for making a difference in their community, or want to promote an organisation that is trying to do so), but also…

It’s really hard for people to accept kindness and help, and even harder to admit it to someone else

The vast majority of the people we’ve spoken to have tried, in some way, to make it clear that they didn’t ‘need’ help, and have in some way emphasised that they are usually the person who does kind things or helps others, rather than being on the receiving end. It’s been really interesting (and heartening) that most of the people we’ve spoken to at random, whether it’s been on the street or at a coffee morning, has been involved in some sort of community group or volunteering, and many of the examples of help or kindness that people are willing to tell us about are connected to this. Some people said that they couldn’t think of any time a stranger or acquaintance has been kind to them at all except the volunteers who helped them to run a group that they run; some people gave examples of being helped by someone who they met through volunteering. Others referred to times when people had helped them, but didn’t want to dwell on them or share the story publically. This does give some suggestion that people who volunteer may also be kind and helpful in their every day lives, but it also demonstrates how ingrained it is in so many of us not to ask for or to accept help, not to feel needy.

Some of the older people we talked to in particular talked about how hard it was to adapt to the change from being the ‘giver’ to the ‘receiver’ of help and kindness.

“I’m really reluctant to receive help… I’ve got so bad that if I have company and they wash the pots, I felt guilty. You’re used to doing things for other people, caring for other people, and I feel embarrassed.”

In reality, very few people are only the giver or receiver of kindness or help, and accepting and even asking for help can be a kind and community minded act in itself.

What next?

We’re still gathering stories about kindness and loneliness, so if you have an example of an act of kindness that’s made a difference to you, please share it with us. More importantly, if you have the chance to be kind and connect, especially as we enter into winter when the weather and darkness means that many older people are less able to get out, take that opportunity and know that it might make a difference. And if someone offers a kindness to you, then accept it, because it will make them feel better too.