Kindness in a troubled world: Why stories are both the problem and the solution

Last week I had the pleasure of joining Carnegie UK Trust’s Kindness Innovation Network in Glasgow, set up with the intention of exploring ways of embedding kindness in public services, workplaces, and communities more broadly.  Coming exactly one month after our own Kindness Symposium was held at the University of Sussex, the event in Glasgow underlined for me the importance of translating interdisciplinary research into practice.  Just as the Scottish Government has identified kindness as a core value in its new National Performance Framework, and as kindness is highlighted in my own workplace’s new strategic framework, the big question is just how to deliver on such noble ambitions.

The meeting in Glasgow brought together people working in a very wide range of roles, and it was a new experience for me to be speaking about my lab’s research – particularly on peer relationships and well-being at school – to such a diverse audience.  But it was striking to find that so much of what I discussed resonated with people working in prisons, urban planning, and procurement.  And I suppose that’s just a reminder of the fundamental human dimension of kindness, which transcends age and place.  Of course, it was very reassuring to hear that our recent study of teenagers’ conceptualisations of kindness mapped so well onto Young Scot’s wonderful elucidation of young people’s perspective on this topic.  But the multi-faceted nature of kindness, its benefits not only for the recipient but also for the giver, and the crucial significance of the underlying motivation (kindness is never just about the behaviour!) appear to be relevant not just to children and young people in schools and other youth settings, but to all parts of our society.

Perhaps most important for me was the sense of a common challenge faced by anyone seeking to make workplaces, public services, and communities kinder.  When Julia Unwin introduced her tremendously insightful report for Carnegie UK Trust at the network meeting, she wryly observed that whereas experienced leaders and managers could probably whip out a strategic framework or operational plan that sets out inputs, processes, and outcomes without too much difficulty, the task of making a service or place of work feel kind is far from easy. Rather than being the soft and woolly construct that one might imagine, kindness is, in fact, the really tough and hard stuff.  It is the challenge, as Julia elegantly argued, of becoming bilingual in two lexicons:  not just the usual rational lexicon we use in large organisations to set out our fair, balanced, and standardised systems, but also the relational lexicon we need to nurture warm and trusting relationships.

Over the course of a fascinating day of presentations and discussions, one key point really hit home for me, namely the importance of stories.  Now, I must confess that I may be slightly biased here – after all, I’ve been working for the past few years with EmpathyLab  to explore how reading and talking about books can help to promote empathy and stimulate social action to make a better world (quick plug – 11 June 2019 is the next Empathy Day!).  But the more we talked about kindness in different contexts and settings, the more I began to see a curious paradox:  stories are both the problem and the solution to many of the troubles we see around us.

Last year, when attending the British Psychological Society’s annual conference in Brighton, I was struck by James Pennebaker’s fascinating lexical analysis of State of the Union addresses by US presidents over the past 250 years. He showed that the formal, analytical approach taken by most presidents has gradually diminished over the course of history, with a more informal, narrative approach being taken by more recent presidents, including both Obama and Trump:  “Administration after administration, the yearly SOTU addresses are laying out simpler and less nuanced world views with bolder more decisive proposals. Faced with complex, hard-to-solve problems, clear and easy solutions are likely more appealing to present to an increasingly polarized Congress (and electorate).”

Notwithstanding the much greater complexity of Obama’s language, the last few decades have seen an inexorable trend towards simple stories that engage and attract an electorate.  And now, of course, we see all too clearly the price we are paying for this simplicity:  a polarised dichotomy on the important issues of our time – in or out, leave or remain, right or left – with all the social psychological consequences that follow from such group divisions.  We seek to favourably distinguish our ingroup from outgroups, we see our ingroup members as individuals but homogenise members of the outgroups, and, disappointingly, we fall time and again into the cycle of prejudice, resentment, and outright hostility.

So how can stories be a force for kindness, rather than serving and even amplifying contemporary populist trends?  Rebalancing the content of the stories in our lives is probably the first step. Noticing and celebrating the kindness that takes place all around us is the most obvious antidote to the relentless stream of negativity that comes to dominate our daily lives.  Maybe it’s time to be proactive about adding Positive News to our media diet, not to mention the informal anecdotes of kindness that are regularly shared on heartwarming websites and social media.  And, as Julia Unwin pointed out at the Carnegie UK Trust meeting last week, spreading and sharing stories of kindness in public services may be far more impactful than the usual top-down rolling out of initiatives, which has killed many a good, evidence-based idea.

But, unfortunately, it can’t be as simple as telling positive stories of kindness.  Across the different sectors represented in Glasgow last week, there was a shared sense that kindness is, by and large, quiet. On its own, a story about kindness does not seem to compete effectively with the much noisier stories of strife, conflict, and hostility.  This echoes our own growing insights into young people’s peer relationships, where kindness is a strong predictor of likeability and positive relationships, yet the qualities that drive social status are dominance and even aggression. So how can kindness ever occupy centre stage in a status-obsessed world?

One approach might be to try and make kindness a bit ‘noisier’, so it becomes just as strong a marker of status as divisive or aggressive behaviour. But this seems risky to me.  Rewarding kindness with social status, in a bid to ‘make kindness cool’, might be missing the point.  In fact, the hazards of rewarding kindness have been demonstrated empirically:  one study of early helping behaviour in 20-month-olds showed that kindness is inhibited, rather than strengthened, after receiving rewards.  The key, instead, might be to find a way to prioritise relationships over status, or, in other words, to de-emphasise the noise of social dominance to allow the quiet of kind relationships to be heard.

And that brings us to the second and perhaps most important way in which stories can be a solution to the problems of our world. Our research partnership with EmpathyLab is based not on the proposal that children will imitate kindness that they see modelled for them in stories, but rather on the proposal that stories can enable us to share, help us to understand, and drive us to respond to others’ emotional lives.  This isn’t about losing our power of reason, making us irrationally wrapped up in others’ feelings. Rather, stories have the power to nurture kindness because they remind us of one simple truth, namely that we all are part of one humanity on one Earth.

The minute we begin to dismiss kindness and empathy as the antithesis to reason – allowing the rational lexicon to stand against, rather than with, the relational lexicon – we resign ourselves to a world where the best we can hope for is a sterile and oxymoronic ‘dispassionate compassion’. This gives us communities and public services focused on transactions with dehumanised others, rather than conversations with fellow human beings.  And in that context, we desperately cling onto over-simplified narratives that separate the world, and indeed humanity, into neat and ordered categories that too often are diametrically opposed to one another:  people like us (who are right, or good), and people like them (who are wrong, or bad).

As we head towards 2019, in a heightened state of anxiety about unresolved global issues and a seemingly intractable polarisation of views, the attention to kindness over the last month has given me hope.  There are other stories to tell – not stories that shy away from the complicated business of human emotions and relationships, not stories that simply instruct us about what is or isn’t the right thing to do, but rather stories reminding us that quiet kindness deserves to be noticed above all else, stories that prompt us to ask searching questions about ourselves and to have conversations with each other.  So my wish for this festive season is that we all find ways to create space for those stories, and not just in our leisure time; finding and spreading kindness through stories may be the most important work of all.

Posted in empathy and reading, kindness, well-being in schools