Life can challenge us in unpredictable ways, and how we respond to the world–and particularly the people in it; our friends, family, colleagues, partners–can either make things more difficult and stressful, or not. When we are stressed, anxious, grieving (or otherwise emotionally depleted in some way), offering our best foot forward may be the last thing on our mind. However, there are immediate and long-term benefits to approaching our lives with kindness over negativity.
Below, we asked Briony Leo, a licensed psychologist, and Head Coach at relationship coaching and self-care app, Relish, for her tips for how to be a nicer and kinder person right now. We also dug up the science behind these tips, so don't delay to begin reaping the feel-good benefits, for yourself and others.
Meet the Expert
Briony Leo is a licensed psychologist, and Head Coach at relationship coaching and self-care app, Relish.
How often have you admired something about another person, yet not expressed the compliment out loud? "Compliments generate a positive cycle of communication and we can think of them as almost the opposite to criticism–they open up conversations and create a positive dynamic between people," Leo says. Compliments are like gifts, Leo says; the receiver gets something enjoyable (like approval and admiration), and in turn we feel good about giving.
They light up all the happiness sensors in your body, too. A genuine compliment can have what Professor Dan Cable calls in a TEDx Talk, "best-self activation." When we talk about someone's best attributes, Cable says there's a part of the brain that lights up and releases dopamine, which is "an enthusiasm-maker," and makes people feel more alive, and want to do more.
Buy a Stranger's Coffee
The premise is simple, doing good makes you feel good, and there's science to back that up. A study published in The Journal of Social Psychology, published in 2010, suggests that acts of kindness increases life satisfaction. Similarly, another study published in 2011 in the Journal of Happiness Studies indicates that the more happiness you derive from being kind (such as spending money on others), the more likely you'll strive to do more of it.
"Humans are geared towards social reciprocity and cooperation," Leo says. Try it out. Offer to pay for a stranger's cup of joe next time you line up at your local coffee haunt, or pick up your usual latte in the drive-thru. "Starting a positive chain such as the coffee purchase reminds us of the power of reciprocity and generosity (which are hardwired into us as a collective)," Leo adds.
Sprinkle Happiness Around
Ever felt inexplicable joy when you're around someone happy? You can't help but smile right? One 2008 study published in BMJ journal, conducted over 20 years, found that our happiness can influence others' happiness by varying degrees (including if you have a friend who lives within a mile, are cohabiting partners, and between next door neighbors). "People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected," the study's conclusion reads.
When you're over the moon about something, don't be afraid to smile wide, share it with your friends and family (or social media), and let your joy guide you through your day–or week.
When was the last time you said "How are you?" to someone and actually listened for their response? Turns out, most of us are really good at the latter. According to one 2012 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we are our favorite topic of conversation. Harvard researchers found that when we talk about ourselves, the reward centers of our brain–which also activate when we experience stimuli like sex, cocaine, and good food–light up. The experience becomes even more rewarding when we know others are listening.
So if you want to be a nicer, more attentive person, make someone's day by letting them talk about their favorite subject, themselves.
Be an active listener: Summarize what you've heard the other person say in your own words (to demonstrate understanding), ask questions for clarification and context, and most of all, resist the urge to formulate a response while they speak.
Say Please and Thank You
It's drummed into us as children, but while you bemoaned at the repetition as a youngster, you should probably thank your caregivers now. Turns out, saying please and thank you is more than just a sign of good manners. A 2010 study, published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that expressing gratitude and providing positive feedback actually boosts people's self-esteem and made them feel more socially valued.
"Modern life can be stressful, and the systems we operate in often encourage us to focus on what we don't have, or the problems that exist for us–rather than all the great things we do have," Leo explains. "Gratitude practices offer a paradigm and perspective shift and encourage us to reflect on what is good in our lives - and as a result of that, we feel less stressed and more fortunate and happy," Leo explains. Thanking somebody says, I see you what you did there, and I appreciate it.
Be Kind to Yourself
Treat yourself with the same respect you'd treat others and not only will it positively impact your life, but the lives of others too. "Self-compassion is incredibly important, since it encourages us to look after ourselves and meet our own needs," Leo says. "When we are kind to ourselves (getting enough sleep, having alone time, seeking support, listening to our bodies), we are likely going to feel topped up physically and emotionally, and be more able to respond to those around us with kindness."
While there is no excuse for bad or offensive behavior, more often than not, there are underlying reasons why someone might be behaving negatively that have nothing to do with you. "When we are stressed, depressed, or anxious, it is quite hard to be kind to others– when our emotional resources are depleted, we can find it difficult to dig deep and be generous to others or have compassion," Leo says.
As much as possible, practice and cultivate empathy. In other words, stay curious and open about people, places, and things. Ask people what their day-to-day experience is like, travel to a new-to-you-neighborhood, participate in a shared cause. "If we struggle to feel empathy, we'll struggle to be kind, since it is harder for us to sense when someone needs our help or when we might want to go easy on them," Leo says. Internally, practice naming your feelings, and acknowledge your biases (everyone's got them).
Take care of yourself, too. "Lack of empathy–if it is unusual for you–can be a sign of burnout and that a rest is needed!" Leo says.