It’s easy to become a cynic.
Just turn on the radio or scroll a social media feed and you can get hooked by a sea of negativity. Moreover, some of the first conversations of the day are complaints. Gridlock traffic. Gloomy weather. A bad hair day. An ungrateful child.
We do this because our brains scan for threats. Imperceptibly and nonchalantly. We can’t help ourselves because that’s how we are wired. There’s even a scientific name for it: the negativity bias.
So, it takes a little bit of effort to refrain from the dramatic appeal of headlines or the habitual drone of a commute. We need to do a mental reversal. This means cultivating discipline—and even some stamina—to turn our attention elsewhere. Where might that be?
Why, toward the good in the world of course. Toward the good in your life. Toward the good in you.
Albert Einstein said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.”
That’s because what we believe drives our actions, fuels our emotional life, and defines how we relate to others.
How you were raised, the conditions of your environment or culture, personal experiences, and genetic predisposition shape your beliefs, whether this is leaning toward a positive or negative outlook on life.
What if there was one incontrovertible way we could shift the view to a friendly world? Lucky for you there is: It’s called kindness.
Kindness is love in action. Here are seven ways to bring more kindness to everyday life. Give it a go. Notice what happens to your thoughts, feelings, and relationships as you do.
1. Begin Each Day with a Moment of a Kindfulness
Kindfulness is being aware of the present moment with heart. Whether this is finding time for a short prayer, a 20-minute centering practice, taking a walk in nature, or another kind of contemplative moment, make time for a “sacred routine.” Craft a personal ritual where you acknowledge and appreciate the whole of your experience.
A quiet mind and attention to the rhythm of your breathing ignites your parasympathetic nervous system. This is your “calm and connect” circuitry.
It’s much easier to embody kindness when you are not stressed. A kindful pause instills a foundation for a friendly mindset. Even if you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, or may be holding a grudge, or anticipate a tough day ahead, simply acknowledge the moment without judgment and with a caring heart.
Reflect: How can I make kindfulness part of my sacred ritual?
2. Create a Habit with a Personal Kindness Challenge
Before you go about your day, commit to doing one kind thing for another person that is outside your usual routine but is absolutely achievable.
That could be sending a note of appreciation to a co-worker, contacting a friend you haven’t chatted with for a while, or gathering old clothes for the donation bin. At the end of the day or week, you can reflect on these experiences. You can even make a note of your kind gestures in a journal, and tally them over time, and notice any changes in your outlook on life.
The more we cultivate a kind attitude and generous spirit, the more we can offset the negativity bias. The more active and embodied the experience the more likely it will stick. As a result, new neural networks get strengthened that build inner resilience and cultivate a positivity bias for a compassionate mind.
Reflect: What small gesture of kindness can I do today?
3. Look at Things from Multiple Perspectives
Not all kindness is returned or appreciated, but that is really not the point. Being generous or patient without expectations is a practice of humility.
The next time you feel irritated or upset with someone or a situation, take a little pause. Inhale and exhale a few deep breaths to flush away the surface tension. Then go a bit deeper. Cultivate “kindsight,” which is viewing life experiences with tenderness and understanding.
Consider some questions: What about this situation may I not be seeing clearly? What if I mentally switched places with this person? What if there is something that I don’t know that could explain the way this person is behaving? What if I don’t take this situation so personally? What if I wait a day to respond? What if the kindest thing to do is to excuse myself from the situation or relationship?
Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do is establish a boundary for yourself.
If anything, the pause may be just long enough to take a step back and redirect energies that give rise to your wisest self. Sometimes kindsight reveals a spontaneous lesson that helps you flourish. At other times, it unfolds slowly over many years as you commit to learning from hardship or choose to take beneficial risks. And it can also be experienced as a humble faith that somehow, someway, your life has a purpose.
Reflect: How can I bring kindness to this difficult moment?
4. Give Yourself a Daily Dose of Self-Kindness
Directing kindness outwards helps to quiet the inner cynic. Directing kindness towards yourself, on the other hand, helps to assuage the inner critic. One way or another the negative attitudes or voices you hold will affect you. That means it is time to show yourself some TLC.
Self-compassion is harboring a caring and non-judgmental attitude. When you can see your joy and your pain as part of the human experience, you begin to realize you are in good company. In fact, research shows that regular self-kindness practices can improve body image and self-perception, and can lessen depression, anxiety, and grief.
Saying a few self-compassion statements can be beneficial when you’re upset and can soothe the brain’s internal alarm system. This is a practice of expressing kind thoughts and phrases as you would to a friend in need, a small child, or a beloved pet. What would you say to them?
Find or create a series of phrases that you find comforting and follow these guidelines: (1) Be clear; (2) Be authentic and true to your experience; and (3) Use a kind tone.
Here are some suggestions:
“I will be okay.”
“I love myself just as I am.”
“I trust in myself.”
“I hold myself gently.”
“You’ve got this.”
“You’re not alone.”
“You have a good heart.”
“You’re okay right at this moment.”
You can use first-person or third-person phrasing, depending on what is most meaningful in the moment. The third person phrasing can be helpful when addressing aspects of the self that feel small, ashamed, or afraid.
Reflect: What vulnerable aspects of my experience need my tender love and care?
5. Connect with Different People than You
A great contributor to the inner cynic is viewing yourself as separate from other people or seeing others as very different from you. This causes disconnection and distrust.
While it’s natural to stick with our own kinfolk and prefer people who look and behave similarly, this can also serve to create divisiveness. It takes effort and courage to reach a hand across the aisle and connect with others. When you do, it can be surprising just how quickly the similarities rise to the surface.
The commonalities are often basic: We are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, parents, and children. We seek safety and stability. We yearn for love and belonging. We want the freedom to make our own choices, to create, to be heard, have a purpose, and to feel respected.
Emotionally, we share the whole range of human experience: joy, suffering, love, anger, humiliation, reconciliation, and so on. Moreover, humanity has evolved over the millennium through the help of other people. Sometimes we forget this. You can employ your compassion instinct and resolve to create bridges.
Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, calls on us to seek radical kinship with others. Even with gang members, the homeless, or people you can’t imagine in your social circle. You don’t have to travel far. We can start right where we live and work by building communities of safety and trust. You can begin by getting curious about the people in your neighborhood or at work and getting to know them.
Reflect: How can I be courageous and step out of my comfort zone?
6. Commit to a Cause
People who are happy to help are happier people. Even grumpy people become happier when they help. The Ebenezer Scrooge part of you can transform. In fact, one of the most direct paths to overall wellness and life satisfaction is volunteering. The research is pretty clear on this point, so much so that psychologist Stephen Post, the author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People, recommends it as one of the most important prescriptions for health, happiness, longevity, and wellbeing.
One to two hours a week of volunteering is one of the best preventative medicines there is. “Giving is the great equalizer,” writes Post, “Whatever your background—privileged or impoverished, blessed or difficult—the starting place for a life of great love is within your reach.”
In a culture where people are tethered to mobile devices, are addicted to the modern affliction of busyness, and are chronically stressed, it may feel impossible to make the time to volunteer. Yet time and again, studies show that helping others outside the family prevents a host of social ailments like teenage substance use and risky behavior, decreases loneliness, recovery from grief or PTSD. Moreover, volunteering is good for heart health and extends life compared to those who don’t volunteer. Something to think about!
Reflect: Where will I be happy to help? What cause or struggle tugs at my heartstrings? How can I arrange my life to commit to helping on a regular basis?
7. Be Grateful
Kindness and gratitude go hand-in-hand as we both receive and express sentiments of appreciation. And acknowledging the blessings in life is a core element of believing in a friendly universe.
“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough,” said the theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart. Countless sages and spiritual masters, contemplative leaders, and writers all emphasize how essential gratitude is in a meaningful life.
Going far beyond good manners, true gratitude comes from the openness of profoundly understanding the fragility and beauty of life. This leads to acknowledging blessings in ordinary experiences.
It’s true that sometimes instead of gratitude we feel guilt and indebtedness: others can give so much to us that we worry we’ll never be able to repay them; or deep inside, we feel unworthy of assistance; or we feel bound by obligation. Yet, once you can overcome judging a kindness and take in the good, you begin to offset that nagging negativity bias. Through gratitude, you can nurture a kind mind. You can nurture a positivity bias through repetitive experiences of appreciation.
Begin with some simple steps, such as (1) Noticing something pleasant or good; (2) Be fully present with kindfulness; (3) Let the experience imprint in your mind, savor it, embody it, and remember it. Just like tallying acts of kindness you can tally moments you are grateful for, and next thing you know, kindness has shifted your lens to seeing the universe as a friendly place indeed.
Reflect: How can I become more aware of the delightful, pleasant and surprising moments in my life?
In sum, the kindnesses add up. You can fundamentally change your brain, your biases, and your worldview. Rather than feel jaded, helpless, or afraid of the world’s pain (or your own), you will come to realize how empowered you are by your kind actions and generous attitude.
There is an upward spiral of positive feelings and goodwill that radiates from the inside out. That’s radical kindness.