I was reflecting on this after reading two very different articles Thursday morning. Flipping through my Twitter feed, I began reading David Axelrod’s commentary for CNN on Beto O’Rourke’s political process. In the article, Axelrod ponders if O’Rourke’s message of reconciliation might not sit well with Democrats who are eager to seek recourse against Donald Trump’s divisive, angry tone and the damage he has done with his reactive policies. It is a fair question given the political climate in Washington right now.
Diving deeper into the social media abyss, I saw a second article on a new social media campaign by Hello!, a British tabloid, called #hellotokindness. While it began as a response to the increased and abusive comments targeted at the Royal Family, the campaign serves a much wider and more important purpose: reintroducing the concept of kindness into how we think, speak and most importantly, act.
It is easy to understand why kindness feels lost of late in our daily lives. I grew up in part — while my father, John Kerry, served in the Senate — in the halls of a Senate that was about reaching common understanding, shared goals, but most importantly, mutual respect for differing viewpoints. It is an example my father demonstrated throughout his career.
Today, our government is overwhelmingly setting an example of contempt for differences, name calling, one-upmanship and a politicization of each other’s values. I am not surprised we just witnessed our longest shutdown in history.
I am especially appalled by the positions of the Trump administration. They reflect the exact “un-empathy” and unkindness that I feel has become all too common inside and outside of Washington. We have witnessed thousands of families being separated at our border, inflicting deep set trauma on those individuals and the nation. We have seen millions become uninsured, according to the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, at the end of 2017. The US Census Bureau estimated that in the same year, the amount of uninsured children increased by about 276,000 — making the total of uninsured children in 2017 nearly four million.
Many just survived without a paycheck for weeks on account of an unnecessarily long governmental shutdown. All leaving us to wonder who is the administration actually trying to help? If trying to uplift the citizens of this country, our leaders would be celebrating sectors like clean energy, health care, and technology — where some of the fastest-growing and highest-paying jobs are in America. They would provide more comprehensive health care, invest in our education system and, critically, affirm the very real, irrefutable climate change and make an energy policy that protects our citizens and the world for years.
Leaders should govern with honesty and with humility, acknowledge hard truths and adapt to our evolving future. That is kindness.
But neither political party is solely at fault for lack of kindness and the culture of bullying that seem pervasive. We now live in a digital age of shallow interaction — email, text message, social media, swipe-left — modes of communication that dilute the humanness of connection. According to a 2018 study, phones and tablets are an increasing source of emotional distress for children, as parents are distracted by devices, or worse, use screen time as a way to avoid social interaction and connection with the real world.
Additionally, cyberbullying is a real and damaging phenomenon. Almost 60% of young Americans have been affected by online harassment, according to a 2018 poll by Pew.
As a parent, physician and leader, I worry about a world where kindness is so rare and so many factors are working to undermine its presence.
However, kindness has a lot going for it and there’s reason for hope.
Despite its endangered status, there are important social and professional benefits to kindness. For example, data supports that kindness has physical and emotional benefits. It can increase energy, boost brain function, and also produces critical neurotransmitters like serotonin and hormones like oxytocin. In simpler terms, kindness provides an anti-depressant effect as well as increased feeling of self-esteem and connection, respectively. It can also lower blood pressure, increase heart health and even possibly increase lifespan.
For those who care more about their position on the corporate ladder than the health pyramid, kindness also contributes to stronger and more empowering leadership. I would encourage everyone to consider the links between kindness and success. Kindness, it turns out, can promote learning and creativity, nurture trust, increase likability and following, increase sales and even support negotiation.
Perhaps the most encouraging piece is that kindness can be contagious. Nicholas Christakis, Yale’s Sol Goldman Family Professor of Social and Natural Science, and colleagues have helped map the power of social networks to spread good in a 2010 study. Their findings suggest that contributions to public good can be consequently tripled through direct and indirect influence. In essence, it’s an example of the butterfly theory of chaos, an idea in which I have long been a believer and one I prefer to promote as a theory of change. We can flap our wings in one spot and participate in a hurricane of change across the world.
So I am intrigued and grateful to campaigns like #hellotokindness that are taking responsibility to shift our cultural approach to interactions. We need to return to kindness as a society. And I am refreshed by an approach of reconciliation by those who do not want to fuel the continued vitriolic tone. A leader showing kindness might be one of the most important “policies” they can put in place.
Right now America needs leadership in all sectors that can heal our deep divides and pave the way to make decisions that will truly make us safer in every sense — climate, health, economy, national security and so on. When it comes to implementing what is needed for this country, being tough should not be confounded with a need to be aggressive and confrontational. Tough is taking the road less traveled to invest in building consensus, and it ultimately starts with promoting kindness.