It is cliché, but it is true — a single act of kindness can go a long way.
In today’s world, kindness is more important than ever. Personally, I have recently been reminded just how heartbreaking, and short, life can be. To honor this, I want to explore the goodness in the world and why it matters so much.
In the wake of a tragedy, there is often a wave of selfless acts of kindness. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the devastation seemed endless. But amid the heartbreak, stories of generosity and courage quickly emerged. Survivors recalled heroes, both first responders and brave strangers, who went back into the collapsing towers to help others escape. As then President George W. Bush recalled, “One of the worst days in America’s history saw some of the bravest acts in Americans’ history.”
Often, an act of kindness means something as simple as holding the elevator for someone, but it can also be a mindset that we apply to our day to day lives. By performing these acts for each other, we prove day after day that there is someone out there who is there for you.
Knowing that there is someone there who is willing to help you, even in the smallest of ways, proves that we are not alone in our struggles. Loss and suffering are essential parts of the human experience, but we cannot handle them on our own.
Compassion is widely regarded as a means of coping with traumatic events. In a physical sense, acts of kindness release dopamine and serotonin, which can reduce pain and increase feelings of energy and self-worth. Helping others has been linked to a reduced risk of depression and lower stress levels.
However, compassion must be directed internally as much as it is externally in the face of negative events. Blaming yourself for something will only make it harder to recover from it. Self-compassion is a cornerstone in coping with trauma.
Self-compassion has three primary elements: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Common humanity as a foundation is imperative to bringing the mindset of kindness to a larger scale. According to a self-compassion scale developed by Kristin Neff, Ph.D., a psychologist and student of Buddhist mediation, “common humanity recognizes the shared nature of suffering when difficult situations arise, rather than feeling desperately alone.”
Common humanity is behind almost all of our typical responses to life’s difficulties, whether that is reaching out to someone who is struggling, bringing a home-cooked meal to someone who is sick or writing a sympathy card to someone who has lost a loved one. Suffering is meant to be shared. The burden should not have to lay squarely on one person’s back. Instead, we all offer to lighten the load with small acts of kindness.
Today, many continue to remember those lost in 9/11 with acts of compassion and courage. But this is far from the first time that kindness has been used as a means to cope with heartbreak. In 1996, The Kindness Project was founded as a way for families to honor their children that passed away. The random acts of kindness serve as a means to continue the legacy of their child while also gradually help the family members themselves heal.
Many projects have sought to improve mental health through compassion. In 2016, Subway Therapy was created by Matthew “Levee” Chavez at the 14th Street — Union Square subway station. The project consists of Post-Its arrayed on a wall at New York City subway platforms that share messages of love, hope, perseverance and kindness.
Initially developed as a way to spread positivity amid the polarized climate of the 2016 presidential election, the project grew into something much larger. The project has allowed strangers to share deep secrets, to find hope for the future and to learn that they are not alone. As one note wrote, “May love find its way to those who read this.”
According to its creator, “Subway Therapy is about making people smile, laugh and feel less stress.” Little moments like these prove that we are not alone and provide us with a shield against life’s biggest challenges. Referring to the project as “therapy” is not entirely inaccurate, as the project is connected to a key idea in mental health: Healing requires company.
Mental health can be vastly improved by kindness — especially when one is struggling with a mental illness.
The stigma surrounding these illnesses can often make those struggling feel far worse, as they may feel isolated and alone. In order to break this stigma, we must view mental illness from a place of compassion, understanding and empathy.
Kindness is a small decision that makes life bearable, as it allows us to get through the struggles and losses that we encounter along the way. It is what keeps us excited and why we look forward to seeing our friends and family. During times of tragedy and darkness, kindness becomes even more necessary.
Perhaps this is because it feels like it is all we can do to mitigate pain. But ultimately, these acts serve as a key foundation for the recovery that comes with healing. I implore this of you: Recognize our common humanity. Check in on your friends, and make sure that those you love know how much you care. Make kindness a habit. You never know how much those you help might need it.