COOL TO BE KIND
Chances are you’re probably a lot nicer than you think, and part of a growing wave of do-gooders who get a kick from being more considerate and less cut-throat. Nell Frizzell discovers why altruism is so hot right now
Maybe we’re not the narcissists we thought we were…
I am not, I suspect, an innately kind person. Aged eight, I was accused of bullying by a boy called Sam because I told everyone his clothes looked like someone had sewn a hoover bag to a fire blanket and given it a pair of knitted sleeves. Inspirational quotes on Twitter set my teeth on edge. I get an intense feeling of satisfaction when I overtake men in cycling shorts when I’m on my bike, and I love winning at Scrabble.
And yet, like 14.2 million other people, according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in 2015, I volunteer at least once a month (as an English teacher at a community centre for refugees and immigrants); I recycle; I pay people compliments; I talk to strangers; I don’t like to see people cry. Perhaps this is evidence, if evidence were needed, that my generation of Xennials (those born between 1977 and 1983) is just as, if not more, socially responsible, ethically minded, environmentally concerned and empathetic than those that came before it. Or, perhaps, I’m simply a follower in what social psychologists call ‘the generosity contagion’, when people imitate other’s prosocial behaviour. Do I, for example, offer to carry older people’s suitcases up train platform steps because I really care about their limbs, or because I’ve seen other people get rewarded for doing the same?
In a world where professional ‘empaths’ can now charge £200 an hour to, literally, feel your feelings, it is difficult to say whether kindness really is on the increase, or if tolerance, empathy and compassion have simply become the latest power tools in the game of personal development. Public figures, from politicians to pop stars, have always been keen to present their kindness to the world. Only now, thanks to social media, rolling news and international communication, the stories reach further, for longer and under more scrutiny. Brooklyn Beckham donated all proceeds from his photography exhibition to Grenfell Tower victims, Ariana Grande visited victims of the Manchester attacks in hospital, and footballer Jermaine Defoe continued to visit the six-year-old club mascot and sufferer of a rare cancer, Bradley Lowery, until his death. These acts of kindness seem, in some respect, to show that our world has moved away from the cut-throat, greed-is-good culture of the Eighties and Nineties towards something a little softer.
Of course, it is often claimed that millennials are the most narcissistic, selfish and abusive generation of all time. According to the NSPCC, one in three children have been a victim of cyberbullying, while an Australian study by digital-security firm Norton found that one in four women under 30 had received general threats of physical violence. But the picture is far from simple. As Cerian Jenkins, campaigner and co-founder of the Gender Equality Network, put it to me: ‘You can’t deconstruct gender inequality in 140 characters. When I first started campaigning, I was quite reactionary to people who were cruel to me. Now, 10 years later, I’ve definitely learned that it’s up to us to respond kindly to everyone. Obviously, if someone is being abusive to you, or threatening violence or sexual assault, you are under no obligation to be kind or to even interact with that person. But if they are coming across as unkind because they feel threatened by what you’re saying, there is an argument for extending kindness to those people.’ As a campaigner, Jenkins advocates for radical kindness: ‘I go out of my way to offer information and be gracious towards people who are reacting negatively to me, online as well as face-to-face,’ she explains. ‘It is exhausting, though. So you also have to be radically kind to yourself. That is perhaps misinterpreted as narcissism by older people, but it’s actually survival. In order to be kind to other people, you have to be kind to yourself.’
Going through the list of acts suggested by Kindness UK, the not-forprofit organisation that organises an annual Kindness Day (13 November, for those of you taking note), I scored a whopping 15 out of 77. I’ve never ‘left money in a parking meter, ticket or vending machine for the next person’. I have not signed up as an organ donor. I have never left ‘a pile of pennies by a fountain for passers by to make a wish’ because, come on, I’m not a Brothers Grimm character. I’ve never ‘made a house for hedgehogs’ because a) I live in London and b) I’m not actually Beatrix Potter. But I have cooked meals for people, donated to charity, given blood and made the effort to reach out to vulnerable people in my neighbourhood, as the list suggests. As for acts of kindness on the internet, I have picked more low-hanging fruit than the man from Del Monte in that regard – sending out supportive tweets, wishing people a Facebook happy birthday, leaving celebratory comments on Instagram: I’ve done it all. And only sometimes to try to make people like me.
As author and trainee psychologist Eleanor Morgan points out, in many ways the internet has made it easier for our generation to show empathy. ‘Whereas, in real-life situations, the Bystander Effect means we might assume that someone else – a friend or a person in authority – will intervene, you can be very direct in online acts of kindness.’ People have, argues Morgan, been pushed out of ‘soft’ relationships – with their shopkeepers, neighbours, GPs – to the extent that millennials have become separated from others. ‘And so,’ she asks, ‘if we are losing those daily human connections, who are you kind to?’ Maybe the answer is, somewhat surprisingly, ‘strangers on the internet’.
Just as it is easier than ever to take to Twitter and anonymously plough into a stranger because you dislike their politics, body shape, spelling or opinions, simultaneously it has never been easier to go to Twitter or Tumblr and find millions of people who think, feel, look and identify the same way as you. Campaigns for trans rights, abortion rights, gay rights, racial justice, economic equality and social justice have all become more visible, more easy to access, more familiar to generations born after 1980 because we can simply look them up online.
The internet has also allowed a far broader reach for volunteer organisations run – quite literally in the case of Good Gym, which delivers shopping while out jogging – on kindness. Take a scroll through the Do-It Trust website and you can, with just a few clicks, volunteer at a food bank, visit local elderly people, be a mentor to an unemployed young person or clean up your local canal. While such actions are certainly to be celebrated, the fact that so many of our most vulnerable must now rely on the kindness of strangers, rather than social security ensured by the state, is a worry. Without individual kindness, many in Britain would have no safety net at all.
So, while I may worry that my own acts of kindness are simply that – individual acts that don’t quite knit together into the warming blanket of being a ‘good person’ – I also, genuinely, don’t care. Or don’t care as much as I used to. As Eleanor Morgan put it, ‘If kindness really is benefiting people, does it deserve cynicism and derision?’ Does it serve anyone to question my motives, study my Twitter feed for hypocrisy or stroke their chin and smirk as I talk of ‘trying my best’? Isn’t it good enough that I’m having a go? As a woman far wiser than me once said, you can’t do everything, but you should still try to do something. Even if it is just to apologise to Sam in Year 4 for slagging off his jumper.
‘So many of our most vulnerable now rely on the kindness of strangers, rather than the state’