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How kindness can be a therapy for mental health issues

Kindness, the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate, has been associated with benefits for people’s mental health and well-being.

It needs to be looked at as an attitude and an approach that a person can integrate into their way of being. It is a skillful practice, which is akin to art and does not have any specific rules associated with it.

The manner in which a person seeks to be kind is contingent upon what they think is possible or feasible for them. This flexibility is a key aspect.

Two recent studies are good examples of this. The first, from Ohio State University, US found that engaging in acts of help and kindness towards others relieves symptoms of anxiety or depression. The research found that acts of kindness had such a positive effect because they helped people shift their mental focus away from symptoms like anxiety or depression.

Another study from the University of Kansas found that just one quality conversation with a friend, during the course of your day, increases your well-being. It results in your feeling happier and less stressed by the end of the day.

It is important to understand that kindness is not something that is just related to engaging in actions of doing something for another. Being kind can be demonstrated in the thought or feeling that is accorded to another, the space that is given to them to be their self, to not be judgmental and to not use your own parameters to determine how another needs to be.

Furthermore, kindness extends beyond others towards your own self too. A person needs to allow themselves to experience thoughts, feelings and situations in the way they do, give space for mistakes, allow for the challenges one experiences and not constantly judge the actions one engages in.

Being kind has multiple benefits which make it important to consider empathy as a key attribute that a person can integrate into their ways of being:

1) It helps reduce levels of stress and distress. Being kind allows you to be able to give space to others and your own self to go through experiences of life without holding situations or people in judgment. It enables you to be more empathetic and builds understanding of thoughts and feelings, which can enable the reduction in building of distress or stress for an individual.

2) Being kind allows a person to be able to feel more connected to another on account of the greater understanding they may have and consideration they would have of the others’ situations and experiences. It thus, can help forge relationships and build a sense of greater engagement.

3) Kindness is known to generate a feeling of joy and happiness. The act of doing something for another is seen as a virtuous act. It taps into people’s belief systems that come from their upbringing about how people in society should be. It enables people to be able to get perspective from others’ lives and as a result can also help a person view things differently, experience reduced levels of anxiousness or better moods.

4) Kindness towards the self ensures that you do not constantly judge yourself and feel bad on account of these judgments about the person that you are. Having greater compassion towards the situations of your lives or finding ways to appreciate the efforts you make by reinforcement or reward, shifts the focus from what is not there to what you are being able to do. This helps bolster a sense of positivity and optimism.

5) Kindness is an attribute which can help a person feel good about themselves, build confidence, enhance feelings of worthiness and build self-esteem. Through its positive effects, it can help contribute towards a person’s resilience and is overall able to contribute towards better mental health and well-being.

(Dr Chhiber is Head, Mental Health, Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare)

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