Today marks the start of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020. For the last 19 years, the Mental Health Foundation has used a week in the month of May to shine a spotlight on mental health. It encourages us to talk about mental wellbeing and in doing so helps to remove the stigma associated with the range of mental health issues that human beings face throughout our lives.
It feels so apt that this year’s theme is kindness. It’s been a deliberate choice by the Foundation to focus on kindness in light of the pandemic the world is facing. Now more than ever, we each need to experience the gift of kindness and the boost that it brings to our mental wellbeing. It’s the bond that unites humanity; it breeds and underpins acts of courage and without it in our lives, in one form or another, each of us would fail to thrive and flourish emotionally.
I doubt there are any of us who are immune to having been on the receiving end of an unkind comment or action and equally, there will be few of us who have never been unkind to another person. Perhaps we could say our halo of kindness has almost been fully intact in adult life. But during our childhood, there will have been many times that we were unkind: to our friends or siblings for example and each of us, as children, will have experienced the effect of other children’s unkind deeds. Children’s unkindness to each other is one thing, unkindness served by adults to children is another entirely.
Research shows that the impact of unkindness, whether it be an unkind word or deed, stays in our memory far longer than a positive memory of kindness. Our ability to recall negative experiences works much more easily than our ability to recall positive experiences as our negatively biased brains cling on to the hurt, wounds and emotional damage that unkindness creates.
And the negative effect on our wellbeing isn’t restricted to unkindness shown to us by others. For our mental wellbeing to thrive, we need regular encouragement and a personal reminder to treat ourselves in a kindly manner. Understanding why we can be kind to others more readily than we are kind to ourselves would be a useful addition to the national curriculum called ‘Kindness To Oneself – A Cradle To Grave LifeLong Lesson’. Its main learning point is this: kindness to others begins with kindness and compassion to oneself. The content of some lessons don’t ‘click’ until years later but the key objective of self-compassion when grasped properly can change our whole outlook on life.
But it’s not only our outlook on life that can be improved by kindness. Research also shows that the more we give and receive kindness, our immune systems are boosted by the release of the feel good hormones seritonin and oxytocin and the effect is cumulative on our wellbeing; the phenomenon of ‘helpers high’ may even add to our longevity.
In essence, kindness is a strong force from which we can all benefit. But its very nature makes those who are most vulnerable feel valued, those who are struggling feel supported and those who feel forgotten, receive the help they need to flourish again. During this time of uncertainty, kindness really matters. It helps individuals find courage to act, despite feeling afraid, and it helps the human spirit feel hopeful that better times lie ahead. Kindness really is a force to be reckoned with.
And we’ve known for a long time that kindness is infectious. This pandemic has served to remind us that as kindness is passed on, one kind act leads to another and it’s something that all of us benefit from by receiving. It’s one of the things in life for which we don’t need an antidote. If this period in time is teaching us anything, it’s that kindness is something that will always make somebody feel that little better.
Kindness is also helping us to remember, that now is an opportunity for us all to look at what we have and to make space in our hearts for others who have far less. For many of us, the things we possess are taken for granted: the ability to look around and be grateful for the things we do have in our lives has been lost along the way for many of us.
Kindness and consideration for each other means so much but we are all human and as such we make mistakes. Our biggest lesson is learning that in every single situation where we got it wrong, a moment of kindness and thought for somebody else would always have made the outcome better.
Kindness rocks and for our mental health it will always rule.