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

ELLE (UK) - - Contents -

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’


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