Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Look in the Mirror. Are You a Kind Person?





                                       Look in the Mirror.  Are You a Kind Person?


These days, unfortunately, there seems to be a limited amount of empathy and kindness and a great deal of unhappiness, stress and conflict. The Stress Monster could not be more delighted with this turn of events. But we should be appalled and alarmed! I think it’s imperative that we look at what is happening to our society and to ourselves. We can gripe and complain about everyone else but every one of us must look in the mirror today, not tomorrow. We can’t enforce our will on others or society, but each of us certainly should be able to do our part to spread kindness to others. You’ve heard, I’m sure, of the Golden Rule which is touted and preached about and given lip service as a fundamental moral and social value. Look in the mirror at yourself, and let’s all take the Kindness Challenge to follow the Golden Rule Every Day.


So let’s look at what makes us empathetic and kind toward others, then more importantly what factors interfere with this natural process. Our empathetic responses allow us to feel what others are experiencing and understand what others might want or need. There is a self protective component to empathy, the desire to avoid unpleasant and upsetting signs and sounds. It’s really quite distressing to watch others in pain without feeling pain ourselves. We have mirror neurons in our makeup; that is, when you watch someone in action your brain cells fire identically as if you were performing the same action. Except for some very damaged people who might be described as psychopaths, we all have the capacity within ourselves for empathy and kindness to others. When people are in danger they stand together. In the aftermath of a tragedy, you will see an outpouring of love, kindness and giving toward survivors. When people need help, as when they are very young and very old, sick or injured, the help and support of others is critical. Envisioning all these situations causes an increase in our feeling of compassion and kindness toward others.


Empathy and kindness are increased by similarity, familiarity and proximity to others. We identify most closely with people who are like us versus people who are dissimilar, those who are seen as different or foreigners. A basic challenge to kindness is created when people are perceived as looking, living or acting in ways different from our own. Other factors cause decreases in kindness and social responsibility.  When there is a perception of or a real lack of resources, competition increases and giving and kindness decrease. In situations of actual or perceived inequality when others are perceived as having more resources, competition again kicks in and interferes with empathetic responding. When situations allow others less fortunate to be blamed for their problems, kindness disappears as blaming increases. When people, for example, are branded as lazy or corrupt or druggies, they are seen as responsible for their own problems and thus unfit to receive our help or assistance.


So if you want to be a kind person, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, look carefully at the paragraphs above and decide how you want to extend your feelings of kindness to others. It should be obvious that kind feelings must be accompanied by kind actions. Furthermore, kind actions should not just be reserved for situations of need or tragedy, but should become an everyday part of our lives. I was delighted to receive recently several emails from people thanking me for my articles and community service. They were sent by strangers who had no need to contact me with kind words. Remember, “What goes around comes around.” When you extend yourself by being kind to others, you will spread positive feelings and they will eventually circle back to you.  I was delighted to see an article in the August News & Observer, “UNC study: Altruistic happiness boosts health. Doing good for others, not self, is the key, researchers find.” I’ve written before about UNC’s Dr. Barbara Fredrickson and her work on positivity, and I commend her for continuing her research in this area.


Kindness should not be reserved only for individual actions but must be considered on the political and world stage. There is currently a great deal of unrest in North Carolina about legislative initiatives which appear to be very unkind to others and the environment. Maybe “Moral Mondays” need to be extended to every day of the week. Not that I mean marching on the legislature with socially conscious older citizens being hauled off to jail, but an everyday increase in kindness and social compassion. I was interested in seeing two more August News & Observer articles. The nationally syndicated “God Squad” Marc Gellman praised the NC Moral Monday rallies, stating “that poor people be helped. What your church is doing seems both permissible and laudatory. You are trying to make America a kinder place.”  Another article discussed the absurdity of “a foolish bill requiring those applying for public assistance to pass a drug test before they can become eligible.” The data quoted in the article cited the failure of a similar Florida law which found that only ”2.6% of applicants tested positive for illegal drugs, a rate more than three times lower than the percent of people in the state estimated to use illegal drugs.”  The article also cited the unnecessary cost to the state for these tests.


An increasing problem for our society is the polarization of social groups. A long-standing rationale extols the virtues of self-interest and competition against social kindness and responsibility. Proponents of these theories criticize social kindness as foolishness promoted by “bleeding heart liberals.”  This philosophy has become institutionalized in our society which promotes excessive profit-making by corporations and banks. This dehumanization was clearly illustrated when the Supreme Court gave corporations the status of persons!


 Income disparity is an even more prominent and increasingly desperate problem. Do you realize that, based on 2010 data summarized by a New York University study, 80% of us own only 4.7% of those financial wealth of the society! The top 1% owns 42% of the wealth our country!  What’s happening? Those of us who are poor or financially stressed increasingly resent the rich, and the rich fear the rest of us as they retreat into guarded and gated communities. Society is being torn apart and with it we are losing values of cooperation, fairness and justice for all, not to mention our social values of kindness and compassion.


So what can you do? Look in the mirror and decide to reach down into your heart and spread love and kindness around you. When all of us are kind and considerate, no one is left behind.