5 Science-Backed Ways To Grow Kinder: A Psychologist Explains

Photo: Kayla Snell

Based on selected excerpts from The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World, a book by psychologist Tara Cousineau, Ph.D.


Do you ever feel your heart is breaking wide open when you see the suffering around you? Do you get swept up in anxious feelings when watching the news? Does negativity weasel its way into daily conversations with others?

Then there’s your own little corner of the world, too. Do you ever get trapped by the habit of "compare and despair" when it seems others just have it so good? Or find yourself so busy or stressed that you stop paying attention to the things that really matter or bring you joy?

Welcome to humanity. Whenever you fall under the spell of fear, anxiety, and overwhelm, you can awaken from the trance of negativity through practices of kindness and compassion.

This is not just about being a do-gooder. It’s so much more. Kindness toward yourself and others has tangible benefits. Modern science is proving out ancient wisdom: Kindness ignites a physiological and emotional infusion of love that stirs your instinct for compassion—from changing neural networks in your brain, to dispersing empathy through your social networks, to opening your heart to profound joy. Some even say it's essential for survival. You can rekindle kindness from the inside out.

The following activities put kindness in the center of your awareness and can generate an upward spiral of positive emotions, meaningful connections, and overall well-being:

1. Remember what it's like to receive kindness.

I invite you to become a "kindness warrior." The process begins by simply thinking about what kindness means to you. Consider your own thoughts, feelings, images, and aspirations. Take out a journal and complete this reflection exercise.

Call to mind at least three instances when you experienced kindness. These could be moments when your kindness instinct caused you to override hesitation and show care or concern for the well-being of others. They could include times when you were on the receiving end of a kindness or when you witnessed someone else putting love into action. You could even include stories of kindness that you heard about that have stuck with you. Here are some prompts to help get you started:

  • I remember when I helped…
  • I was reminded about human kindness when…
  • I’ll never forget when ______ was kind to me…
  • When I think about kind people in the world, the list includes…
  • When I think about kind people in my life, I call to mind…
  • A time I stood up for kindness was…
  • When I think about when I had to get out of my comfort zone to be kind, I remember the time…

By noticing your instinct toward kindness and compassion, you can begin to kindle it—or rekindle it. So, recognize kindness when you see it. Notice that many of us are warriors without even knowing it.

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2. Come up with one kind thing you can do for yourself and do one thing to work toward it every day.

What is one thing you can do every day to slowly shift the neural patterning in your brain toward positivity and self-care? Write this out in your journal, keeping it short so you can read it quickly. Then tape the intention to your bedroom wall, bathroom mirror, refrigerator, or office space so you can read it regularly, as repetition is important. Here’s an example:

I want more friends so that I feel connected. To be the person I want to be, I’d like to feel the empowerment that comes with support and comfort. One positive step I will take today is to talk with one person at the coffee shop. I promise to schedule time to do this step every morning when I buy my coffee. I may even let my brother know that I’m taking this step, so he can support my efforts and encourage me on days when I may fall short. I know that anytime I choose to take this positive step of talking to a new person, I am building up fresh neural pathways in my brain and growing new inner strengths. I promise to be kind and caring toward myself every step of the way.

Growing a kind mind takes practice, and practice makes progress. You can direct inner change, and that is empowering. Knowing this allows you to choose kindness over criticism, faith over fear, and understanding over indifference.

Photo: Milles Studio

3. Recognize kindness in those you love.

It seems so simple to acknowledge what we cherish. Yet we can easily take such things for granted. A vital part of cherishing is scanning for these tiny, beautiful moments and appreciating them. To do so, it’s important to be present and make efforts to connect, whether keeping up to date and curious about someone’s daily life or supporting future dreams. Here is an adaptation of the "cherishing" skill from The Gottman Institute, which is dedicated to research and training in fostering healthy relationships. Use it as an ingredient of joyful effort in enhancing any relationship you care about.

In your journal, write qualities that you cherish in your partner, friend, family member, or child. You might jot down characteristics such as curious, determined, funny, loyal, witty—the possibilities are numerous.

Next, write this person a note of adoration or appreciation, using the words you chose. Express your cherishing by describing why, and remember to include small, quirky reasons. End the letter with statements of love.

It’s funny that the science of love proves the obvious. Breaking the trance means exposing yourself to all of life: good, bad, ugly, beautiful. It means trusting your body to be a messenger and that your inner gifts can respond with love and kindness. Kindfulness is a daily practice. When you open to the wholeness of life, you can appreciate the struggles and triumphs. In doing so, you pave the way for one of the most gracious ways of kindfulness: gratitude.

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4. Journaling from the heart.

Grab a notebook or a few pages of loose-leaf paper, plus a pen that is easy to write with, and put yourself in a comfortable atmosphere. Commit to writing for 15 to 20 minutes without self-editing or making corrections. Set a timer so you have a clear start and finish, and plan to do something grounding afterward, such as taking a walk or cooking.

Reflect on a challenging life situation, past or present, that you would like to look at from a tender place of acceptance or understanding. Here are lovely writing prompts adapted from some masters:

  • Reflect with compassion. How is the experience you are reflecting on related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now? How can you view this experience from a place of kindness or compassion?
  • Your future self. Imagine yourself as a wise older version of yourself, 80 or 90 years old. Write a letter from your wise self to yourself at the age you are now. What encouragement and kindness do you offer?
  • Poetry. Watch a poem unfold as you answer the prompt "I am from…" Reflect on your life with openheartedness about places, people, culture, food, religion, beliefs, traditions, significant moments, and values. List them one after another. Be descriptive about details such as colors, smells, sounds, or colloquial expressions. Notice any new or fresh connections that arise.

We live by the stories we have about our lives. Bringing stories to conscious awareness through writing and storytelling begins to loosen the hatch on some of the darker narratives that may lurk unattended. Writing with intention and mindfulness serves to reinterpret your life experiences and can ignite profound change, connecting your head and your heart in new, expansive ways. It can turn hindsight into kindsight.

5. Create a circle of care.

The giving and receiving nature of kindness creates a positive feedback loop that you can initiate anytime. But sometimes it takes a little bit of effort to get that kindness cycle jump-started. It helps to get a view of the big picture.

Map out your social connections on a piece of paper. In the center of the page write your name. Create circles or nodes that represent people or communities of support in your life and label them, using the list of suggested categories here. Next, draw lines between circles indicating any connections starting with you and any branches between the nodes. Write the names of people you know in the circles. Some circles may be empty, and those areas point out opportunities to grow social connections with people and communities you trust. Try to indicate at least one connection, even if you are unsure of the closeness of the connection. For instance, you might write in your doctor or pastor. Then consider to whom you might offer a helping hand or from whom you might ask for help when you are in need. Add as much detail as possible to your web of caring connections.

  • Me
  • Family
  • Friends near
  • Friends far
  • Neighbors
  • Co-workers
  • Helpers and healers
  • Support groups
  • House of worship
  • Community groups
  • Hobby/Interest groups
  • People I can help/Volunteer opportunities

The metaphor of a network of circles conveys containment, safety, sharing, and flow. You may surprise yourself with just how many names pop into your mind once you get going. When your circle is complete, set an intention to get in touch with a few of those people to either offer your help if you know they might be relieved to get it or to ask for help if you think they’re able to give it to you.

We all need help, every single one of us. This truth is at the root of compassion. When you dig deep into your life history, you’ll find that it’s often the unexpected blemishes or imperfections or mistakes that turn out to be part of the most beautiful embroidery of all. Because appreciating their place in the overall design helps us feel connected with one another, no matter what.

If you're feeling inspired, read about the mental habits of the happiest women we know.

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