Is there a scientific basis for kindness?

Dr Claudius van Wyk [i] is director of the ET Group – a holistic wellness consultancy. Here he explores some reflections upon scientific foundations of a philosophy of kindness – from chemistry and biology to psychology and society. He attended our first day event in Harehills called ‘Exploring Common Ground.

Darwin would have been mortified, had he been alive today, to find his theory of evolution, in our contemporary culture, having been mechanistically reduced to the simplistic idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’ and thereby consequently used to justify, life-degrading and unethical worldviews. This misrepresentation has surely been a factor in society’s fixation on power and control. In contrast, new holistic scientific perspectives show bonding and collaboration to be a driving force behind human evolution.

The root word of kindness is ‘kin’ which refers to ‘kinship’ and ‘family’. ‘Kindness’ is usually described as behaviour marked by the ethical characteristics of concern and consideration for others and is considered a virtue in many cultures and religions.

Chemistry

A phenomenon resembling ‘kinship’ – the clustering into constellations for risk minimisation and synergetic benefit – is evident even at the level of organic chemistry through the process of bonding. Chemical ‘synergy’ is when chemicals form such bonds that the whole no longer resembles the parts.

Biology

In biology, symbiosis occurs when organisms form mutually beneficial relationships. A further development – endosymbiosis – begins to resemble the synergetic effect found in chemistry when the parts get enfolded in a greater whole – such as in the cell.

Ecology

Organisms within ecosystems are interdependent for survival. Symbiosis and interdependence form the basis of forest ecologies for example where plants animals, microbes, fungi and soil form a supportive web of life in differentiated roles of energy producers, consumers and decomposers – to such an extent that it is not possible to understand a tree without understanding the complex interrelationships, exchanges and communications that go to making the forest as a whole.

Until recently during the first three industrial revolutions, mechanical metaphors and linear thinking have dominated our thinking. But over recent decades eco-literate thinking and new disciplines such as systems thinking, and complexity science have emerged to provide a more effective and holistic perspective. [ii] 

Holism

The little-known originator of holism, Jan Christian Smuts, [iii] whom Einstein and Churchill held in high regard, spoke about ‘affinities’ of attraction and opposites of repulsion. For his holistic science this demonstrated the drive to greater integration, through collaborative relationship, as the driving force of evolution.  

In contrast to populist misinterpretations of Darwin’s idea of evolution, Smuts suggested that evolution was rather the realization of potentials through collaborative processes. In the human social world the greatest achievements have been made by collaboration and sharing – of which science itself is the foremost example. Smuts suggested a further step was justified and built upon Lamarck’s controversial suggestion that there was intention behind evolution. Both richness of diversity and symbiotic affinities account for the evolutionary ascension of matter into life, and life to mind, mind to personality, personality to society, and society to the generation of abiding ‘values’.

Social Systems

In human social systems the concept of bonding, or kinship, and therefore expressions of kindness can also be considered as evolutionary. Evolutionary cultural psychology [iv] has suggested there is an ascending process of maturity – a spiral of human archetypes based on different types of increasingly subtle bonding motivations.

For example ‘caveman archetypes’ bonded for survival, whereas ‘clansman archetypes’ bonded for security. ‘warrior archetypes’ bonded for power and control. In contrast ‘law maker’ archetypes bond to protect the civil or religious rules of a prevailing societal worldview, faith or ideology. Entrepreneur archetypes develop relationships to achieve individual goals, whereas eco-humanists, bond around human solidarity and mutual respect.

These represent the stages in history that we have reached to date. However, we are collectively readying ourselves for a leap towards a new archetype of the systems thinkers who develop relationship for generative information-sharing around existential challenges. Systems thinkers and future archetypes are able to look back over the previous forms of motivation at a meta level of thinking. ‘Universalists’, like the Dalai Lama for example, express a re-generative relationship with everyone – with the entire living milieu, societal and natural, for deeper self-realisation. Finally one might say, even from a secular perspective, that enlightened avatars – such as the Buddha and the Christ – transcended self to experience totality-of-being in order to become agents of universal self-realisation and we are to hope that a future society that can become the ecologists of the cosmos might be based upon something an aspiration towards such lofty – whether such heights are attainable or not.

In conclusion then, we can say that ‘kindness’ therefore can be considered as an evolutionary behavioural expression of nature’s holistic drive to self-realisation through evolutionary collaboration, integration and the realisation of ever greater wholeness. Kindness is thus enfolded in the universal evolutionary process.

[i] Claudius van Wyk has a doctorate in holistic medicine and a master’s degree in ethics as well as being an authority on complexity science and the origins of holism.

[ii] Through writers such as Donnela Meadows, Peter Senge, Dave Snowden

[iii] In 1926 Jan Christian Smuts wrote ‘Holism & Evolution’. Following a presentation to the Royal Scientific Society in 1931, Einstein said of his work that it would come to dominate the 21st century and beyond along with the work on quantum physics that he and others innovate.

[v] Professor Clare Graves in his theory of Spiral Dynamics that was later developed by Don Beck and others, showed that ‘mind’ and ‘personality’ was also evolutionary in its internal representation of reality that informed behaviours such as kindness.

The Power of Kindness At Christmas

Angela Green & John Walsh share their perspective on how kindness is an underestimated gift to ourselves at Christmas

 “Kindness is more than deeds. It is an attitude, an expression, a look, a touch. It is anything that lifts another person.” –Plato

What is kindness? Why is the word kindness flying? Why does kindness particularly blossom at Christmas and why do we want to start a Kindness Revolution? We thought we would share some reflections with you.

Christmas is a time for giving. For most of us it is hopefully a time of cheer, laughter, connection and joy.  For many of us it isn’t. Food, fuel, housing, income and other forms of poverty hit our fellow citizens. Mental and physical health problems bear down heavy on many.  

During the Christmas season, gifts and kind gestures come our way. When the giving is done genuinely without expectations, with love, it can really affect both the giver and the receiver.

In work, I recently gave out some small paper bags containing some small gifts to each person on my NHS team. This small action stirred much within me and my colleagues. I noticed within myself a sense of excited expectation and kind offer as I handed over the bag to each individual. Faces lit up, smiles crossed my colleagues features and some deep connection was touched. I noticed I was smiling and a felt sense of warmth bubbled up inside me as if my heart had opened a little more to another and to myself. A genuine moment of feeling alive, connected and grateful for the presence of other fellow humans had happened  

So what is going on in this process? Why can a simple act of kindness make us feel happy and included? There are probably many reasons. One may be all about how we often are and how kindness can unlock us from that state.  Our minds can be locked in worries, work plans or current pressures. In this state we are not really present. The founder of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls would often intone the need to ‘get out of our heads’ and into the experiences taking place around and inside us. To truly observe and be present to what was happening. Perls wasn’t demeaning thinking. Rather he was inviting us all into a new and enhanced space for it to love and flourish.

Acts of kindness take us out of our heads and re-connect us to ourselves and others. They awaken within us a realisation of the feelings of gratitude, love, joy and inspiration. We need these experiences in the stress, hustle and bustle of living and work pressures. Kindness is a unifying moment of relational emotional acknowledgment. Kindness is a dance. It is a moment of unity, a binding together of ourselves and another in harmony and accord. It can be a levelling of power and position if only for a moment. It helps us realise what really matters, a reminder of our value and worth. It says that we are truly worth-full.

The power of kindness is still very much underestimated and under used. There is much research evidence that kindness has the power to make us happier, improve relationships, and is good for our wellbeing. Kindness is contagious. A small act of kindness, a smile, a door held opened and a care shared creates ripples and spreads seeds much further than we can ever estimate or know.

I offer you all a kind invitation to explore this Christmas how you can participate in the intentional practice and language of kindness within ourselves, within our families, within our work and public spaces. We may be surprised at how amazing this work can be. The West Yorkshire and Harrogate Partnership has led the brilliant ‘Looking Out For Our Neighbours’ campaign that has as its aim – ‘inspire people to make small changes to help out their neighbours – and in turn, help prevent loneliness and social isolation’ ( ). This campaign has led to many acts of care and kindness across the region.  We believe in these acts of kindness lies a hope and power that offer a hope we all need to see and share.     

At this Christmas time please take good care of yourself and have the kindest Christmas possible.

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” -Amelia Earhart

World Kindness Day

Gloria Kimberley suggests that whatever we choose to focus our attention on grows in our awareness and so why not focus on something positive?

Yes World Kindness Day actually is a thing! I’ve only recently found out about this event and am keen to promote it as it is linked to our project of creating a Festival of Kindness, Compassion and Wellbeing in Leeds next September.

Many of the communication channels we come into contact with on a daily basis tend to emphasise division, negativity and drama, which for the most part leaves us feeling fearful, angry and often overwhelmed. However, we can choose to change our focus and attention to kindness. In fact kind things happen around us every single day. If we don’t hear or see them it’s usually because we’re allowing our attention to become diverted elsewhere.

I recently joined Next Door – this is an app that connects you with people in your area or in other words, your neighbourhood. Of course, like many of you, I don’t see my next door neighbours regularly never mind the people a few houses down the street.  The app opens me up to a wider local group and there was a lovely post the other day from a woman thanking the kind, young person who had helped her mother with Alzheimer’s when she went roaming around the neighbourhood. This person looked after her mum and had no obligation to do so nor was seeking anything from the situation other than to help a fellow human being who needed it. A story like that makes me feel warm, gives me faith in others and encourages me to be a bit kinder.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.

So let’s put our focus and attention on being kind today and see how it feels. You don’t have to do a big thing but something small and easy that fits into your day (acknowledge someone with a smile, say good morning or thank you, hold a door open for someone or let a car out in front of you). If that feels good then set the intention to incorporate a small act of kindness into your week and soon enough it will become a kind habit.  

I completely understand when people say that there are so many bad things that happen in the world these days but the good far outweighs the bad when you start to look for it, even in dark moments. So let’s all tune into kindness and help it grow.

Gloria Kimberley is Project Leader of the Leeds Festival of Kindness, Compassion and Wellbeing

Are You Ready To Join the Kindness Revolution?

Our Journey So Far

Exploring Common Ground” – is a short video of an event that took place in December 2018 in Harehills, which was the first in a series aimed at building involvement in a city-wide festival of compassion and wellbeing.

Several workshops later the project had morphed into what is now being called the ‘Leeds Kindness Revolution’.

And at a recent celebration in September 2019 , people of all ages, faiths and backgrounds came together at Leeds Jamyang Buddhist Centre to launch a twelve-month countdown to the ‘Leeds Kindness Revolution’ which will be both a city-wide festival and campaign for kindness, compassion and wellbeing that will involve communities, projects, businesses and schools across the city next year.

At the launch event, project lead Gloria Kimberley shared plans for the festival and the different ways in which people can be involved. A musical cabaret was performed by singers Tenzin and ‘Captain of The Lost Waves. Leeds writer and artist Paul Heaney provided poetry and Andy Bradley, one of the originators who inspired the project, spoke about his experience of asking wherever he goes, whether this is a kind place and of the replies he got.

Representatives from diverse groups including Leeds Inter-Faith Forum, Leeds City Museum Service, MoMM’s mindfulness network and a variety of local community groups and businesses heard about plans for creating the festival which will be a multi-venue festival showcasing the work of some of the many individuals, voluntary groups, communities and businesses committed to creating kinder communities and public wellbeing across the city next year.

A web of kindness – through a distributed network of self organised events

The Leeds Festival of Kindness, Compassion and Wellbeing could be seen as an experiment in culture change – through the celebration of our collective commitment to living our values and showcasing the different practices and practical work that is being done by thousands of individuals, voluntary groups, communities, businesses and the Council to promote community wellbeing.

The festival is intended as a structure for participation intended to encourage participation and give people permission to self-organise and make a practical commitment to a shared purpose that ‘grows’ people, places and planet.

‘Leeds Kindness Revolution’ aims to give people an experience of what a city of kindness and wellbeing could be like and a glimpse into how things could be different for everyone including those who are often excluded.

Not so much a festival, more a way of life

By working with partners, projects and communities across the city ‘Leeds Kindness Revolution’ aims to create a culture of public, community and personal wellbeing where no one is left behind. The festival will take place between 5th-13th September 2020 but the project team have launched a twelve-month countdown to the festival that will involve a series of monthly smaller events to raise awareness and build participation.