Tim Wimborne / Reuters

Take five minutes to meditate. Try to quiet the judgmental voice in your head. Call your mother. Pay for someone else’s coffee. Compliment a colleague’s work.

In an age of polarization, xenophobia, inequality, downward mobility, environmental devastation, and climate apocalypse, these kinds of Chicken Soup for the Soul recommendations can feel not just minor, but obtuse. Since when has self-care been a substitute for a secure standard of living? How often are arguments about interpersonal civility a distraction from arguments about power and justice? Why celebrate generosity or worry about niceness when what we need is systemic change?

Those are the arguments I felt predisposed to make when I read about the newly inaugurated Bedari Kindness Institute at UCLA, a think tank devoted to the study and promulgation of that squishy concept. But it turns out there is a sweeping scientific case for kindness. In some ways, modern life has made us unkind. That unkindness has profound personal effects. And if we can build a kinder society, that would make life better for everyone.

Darnell Hunt, the dean of social sciences at UCLA and a scholar of media and race, told me some of the questions the institute hopes to investigate or answer: “What are the implications of kindness? Where does it come from? How can we promote it? What are the relationships between kindness and the way the brain functions? What are the relationships between kindness and the types of social environment in which we find ourselves? Is there such a thing as a kind economy? What would that look like?”

Not like what we have now. Research proves what is obvious to anyone who has been online in the past decade: For all that the internet and social media have connected the world, they have also driven people into political silos, incited violence against minority groups, eroded confidence in public institutions and scientists, and made conspiracy theorists of us all—while making us more selfish, less self-confident, and more socially isolated.

“The internet is largely a cesspool,” Daniel M. T. Fessler, an evolutionary anthropologist and the new institute’s director, told me. “It is not actually surprising that it is largely a cesspool. Because if there’s one thing that we know, it’s that anonymity invites antisociality.” It is easier to be a jerk when you are hiding behind a Twitter egg or a gaming handle, he explained.   

The political situation is not helping matters, either. Americans have become more atomized by education, income, and political leanings. That polarization has meant sharply increased antipathy toward people with different beliefs. “We’re in this hyperpolarized environment where there’s very little conversation across perspectives,” Hunt said. “There’s very little agreement on what the facts are.”

There’s plenty of pressure for people to be unkind to themselves, too. Matthew C. Harris and his wife, Jennifer, seeded the Bedari Kindness Institute with a $20 million gift from their family foundation. For him, the topic is personal. “I wasn’t kind to myself, which has roots in my own childhood experiences. I was judgmental of myself, and therefore others. I was very perfectionistic,” he told me, reflecting on his business career. “I realized: This is not sustainable.”

The antidote seems to lie in media, economic, social, and political change—lower inequality, greater social cohesion, less stress among families, anti-racist government policy. But kindness, meaning “the feelings and beliefs that underlie actions intended to generate a benefit for another,” Fessler said, might figure in too. “Kindness is an end unto itself,” and one with spillover effects.

At a personal level, there’s ample evidence that being aware of your emotions and generous to yourself improves your physical and mental health, as well as your relationships with others. One study found that mindfulness practices aided the caretakers of people with dementia, for instance; another showed that they help little kids improve their executive function.

Kindness and its cousins—altruism, generosity, and so on—has societal effects as well. Fessler’s research has indicated that kindness is contagious. In one major forthcoming study, he and his colleagues showed some people a video of a person helping his neighbors, while others were shown a video of a person doing parkour. All the study participants were then given some money in return for taking part, and told they could put as much as they wanted in an envelope for charity. (The researchers could not see whether the participants put money in or how much they put in.)

People who saw the neighborly video were much more generous. “One of my research assistants said: ‘There’s something wrong with our accounting; something’s going haywire,’” Fessler told me. “She said, ‘Well, some of these envelopes have more than $5 in them.’” People who saw the first video were taking money out of their own wallets to give to charity, they figured. “I said, ‘That’s not something going wrong! That’s the experiment going right!’” It suggests that families or even whole communities could pitch themselves into a kind of virtuous cycle of generosity and do-gooding, and that people could be prompted to do good for their communities even with no expectation of their kind acts redounding to their own benefit.

Interpersonal empathy might translate into political change, Hunt added. “We see this [research] as being civically very important,” he said. “Take homelessness in L.A., for example. How do we get the electorate to become more empathetic and support policies necessary to make a meaningful intervention? That’s not something you can just do by fiat. People have to be brought along.”  

This holiday season, there are so many ways to bring yourself and your community along—among them little things like taking five minutes to meditate, calling your mother, and paying for someone else’s coffee. Maybe kindness is not a distraction from or orthogonal to change. Maybe it is a pathway to it.

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