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Does kindness matter?

Like spraying water on a spider’s web, research reveals the taken for granted infrastructure of human relationships.

Credit: Flickr/Ron Mader. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Does being kind have any role to play in achieving real and lasting gains in social and economic justice? At first sight it sounds unlikely. Kindness is so soft a virtue and injustice is so hard. Individual acts of love and compassion are no substitute for removing centuries of structural oppression.

But after a year of working with seven organisations in different communities in Scotland with a team supported by the Carnegie UK Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, I’m convinced that kindness lies at the heart, not only of our ability to generate wellbeing but also to strengthen the foundations on which the power for change can be built. Here’s the argument in a nutshell:

Kindness makes people’s lives better, but just encouraging individuals to be kinder to each other has significant limitations. Therefore, we have to transform the social, economic and political structures that inhibit our ability to act in kindness, and at the same time strengthen the links between these actions and our aspirations for greater social and economic justice.

That may sound simple, but researching these issues is like spraying water on a spider’s web, making visible the taken for granted infrastructure of relationships that makes a significant impact on the quality of our lives.

We know that resilient individuals have at least one strong emotional attachment, along with access to wider support and positive community experiences, so there’s a well-documented association between strong social ties and lower adult mortality. A recent meta-analysis shows a 26 percent increase in the likelihood of death when measured over an eight year period as a result of loneliness, irrespective of a person’s age. In an increasingly virtual world, we still live in real houses on real streets, and rely on direct contact with real people to make our lives work.

As part of our research we spoke to many of these ‘real people,’ who talked eloquently about what kindness means to them in the film that accompanies our report. One of them, Hannah, spoke about kindness in terms of “sharing, trust, encouraging and being gentle with each other;” another, called Angela, described it as “a true opening of your heart, true belief in the talents, abilities and love that everyone can share.”

When we spoke to customers at the Tesco supermarket in Maryhill, Glasgow, we found that many isolated older people were shopping every day or so in order to break up their day with at least some form of human interaction. When asked if they took part in activities or groups to meet other people, many of those we spoke to said that they didn’t like anything that was formally organized; they would rather have a good neighbour than someone who is paid to spend time with them, or even a volunteer.

But kindness is also difficult, especially given the pressures of living and working in contemporary capitalist societies where altruism and compassion often have to be rationed, or are actively discouraged. Talking to older people in particular, it was striking to hear how far their notion of ‘neighbourliness’ extends beyond what would nowadays be considered ‘normal.’

For example, Maureen and Isabella—two residents of Maryhill—talked fondly of their past experience of tenement life in Glasgow, sharing childcare and chores and taking meals to older neighbours. The creation of the welfare state relieved some of those obligations and provided vital services at a time of national crisis, but social needs have multiplied and expectations have since been raised.

Alongside changes in family structures and growing geographic mobility, these developments have weakened some of the bonds that held communities together. We found that—whilst people understand the economic and social shifts that underpin these changes—they still miss a sense of that older community spirit. In many cases however, people said that fixing this problem ‘was someone else’s job.’ 

Looking for evidence of ‘what works’ in creating kindness revealed a mismatch between what we wanted to explore—relational experience in communities—and the existing body of research and policy studies that focus on the transactional, the evaluation of interventions which assume that success depends on formal institutions.

This pattern—identify a problem and then task or create an organisation to find the solution—is common in the social policy field, but nurturing the values of community and caring for each other isn’t something that can be achieved through top-down, bureaucratic action.  We’re not going to find the answers in services, programmes or projects, but at a much deeper level in the humanity of individuals, and how to let that humanity grow and flourish. 

For example, one of our respondents (called Margaret) wore a ‘Friendly Dumfries’ badge to indicate that she was someone who was happy to have a chat. She found that wearing the badge made her think about her role and presence in helping to strengthen community. Other respondents talked about creating welcoming places and informal opportunities to get together and explore what kind of society or neighbourhood people want to live in. Simple steps like these can help to create the conditions for greater kindness in communities.

But equally important is finding out what gets in the way of kindness, and acting to remove those barriers beyond the level of the individual. Part of the problem is that many of those we talked to saw greater risks in altruistic action than in previous decades. As a result, they are increasingly likely to seek out more formal routes to be helpful in their communities through established charities, as opposed to through their individual interactions with each other.

Shug, for example, a community worker in Kircaldy, suggested a weekly kickabout in a local park with kids and their parents. He went ahead and put the idea into practice, but after a couple of weeks he was challenged by the local authority to produce his ‘risk assessment’ paperwork and identify a ‘lead for child protection.’ In this case, regulation, or perhaps more accurately our current interpretation of what regulation means, is getting in the way of encouraging more opportunities for people to come together and express their care and attention for each other informally; the official structures of caring form a barrier to ‘unofficial’ kindness.  

Intuitively it might make sense to conclude that if we care more actively for each other in communities then we place less pressure on overburdened public services, but this doesn’t necessarily lead to greater empowerment in communities, still less to broader social change. So what is it that connects kindness to social transformation?

In Tesco Maryhill for example, individual caring connects with community empowerment because checkout staff have taken the time to get to know their isolated customers, talking with them, helping to build their confidence, and nudging them to join local groups, as well as raising money and volunteering for community projects like after school clubs where kids get a healthy snack and help with homework, community gardens and cooking projects. 

There was much less recognizable agency involved in the Cook Club in Moredun in Edinburgh, where people (often facing severe difficulties) come together once a week to prepare and share food with one another. Individual kindness is clearly evident in Moredun, but it is limited in challenging the underlying factors that produce adverse childhood experiences, poverty, deprivation, neighbourhood hostility, addiction and inadequate responses from the state.

The best results seem to come from mutually-reinforcing relationships between structures and individuals, as, for example, when TESCO’s corporate policy in Maryhill was changed to give permission to staff to become more active in community engagement. Whilst kindness is obviously not sufficient in itself, it seems to be a necessary element in creating the power for positive change.

It’s difficult, though, to talk about kindness at all in a public policy context. These conversations are uncomfortable, and kindness sometimes feels too soft or too glib in contrast to other, more formal and more recognised approaches to social research and social policy. However, it has been liberating to have so many conversations about something that everyone can connect with, and to become explicitly involved with the work both intellectually, and personally and emotionally.

Our conversations with Maureen and Isabella and Margaret and Shug and all the others show that we can all talk about kindness, and talk about it in ways that are powerful both personally and politically.  That universality of understanding matters if we are to affect social change for the good, rather than merely providing superficial solutions through social services.   

About the author

Zoe Ferguson has 20 years experience in public policy in Scotland in roles spanning research, analysis and policy, most recently as the Chief Social Researcher at the Scottish Government. Since leaving government in 2015 she has worked with Edinburgh Cyrenians and is currently an associate with the Carnegie UK Trust.  


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