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Claudia Hammond, a British author and radio broadcaster, discusses how altruism exists cross-culturally ...
2023-05-18 09:00:00

Be Kind and Be Well
The Healing Powers of Kindness

Claudia Hammond. Photo courtesy of Canongate
Be Kind and Be Well
Be Kind and Be Well

The more gestures of kindness we show towards others, the better we feel—both psychologically and physically. Claudia Hammond discusses the results of her recent, globe-spanning, research into kindness.

Read in 18 minutes

Her voice is familiar to many Brits across the UK—for years now she’s been a BBC radio presenter, popularizing understanding of psychology, neurology, and mental health. In these programs, Claudia Hammond explains how the results of new, often pioneering scientific research can be put into practice. She is the author of The Art of Rest (2021) and The Keys to Kindness (2022), which are based on international research projects into rest (The Rest Test) and kindness (The Kindness Test), which she co-authored. She travels across the world, gives open lectures, and hosts debates on health. Przekrój caught up with Hammond at her London home, a day before she traveled to New Zealand. 

Paulina Wilk: Let me start by thanking you. It is a small act of kindness to share your time with an unknown journalist from Poland. But then again, you enjoy talking to strangers… 

Claudia Hammond: I do! I often smile and talk to people I don’t know. I like to stop and have a little chat in the shop. 

Is this your key to unlocking everyday kindness?  

I took to it recently. Before I started researching kindness, I didn’t realize you can actually count those tiny talks and interactions as such. Also, a few years ago I took part in the BBC’s Loneliness Experiment, and during this study it became clear that conversations can prevent people from feeling lonely. They can be very small. You can just say three words to a person on a bus and be the only person they speak to that entire day. It makes a real difference when you take time to notice others. 

So, what stops us from trying? We regard chatting to strangers as somewhat risky.  

If you look at the scientific research, you’ll find that most people are afraid that if they start a conversation with a stranger, he will find us boring or won’t like us very much, or will not want to talk to us. But the evidence says the opposite. In various experiments the vast majority of people being suddenly spoken to, really liked it. 

Are we less prone to speak to strangers, on buses and trains, than we were thirty years ago?  

It is difficult to say, because equivalent research was not made back then. But we know that the circumstances matter a lot. It depends on where we are and whether we feel safe or not. In an English village when you go for a walk and pass by people in the countryside or in the fields, they will all say hello to you and some will chat. In London people don’t do that. They can’t, there’s too many of us. And you certainly won’t talk to a stranger in the middle of the night when you’re on your way home after catching the last train. Which does not mean there isn’t a whole lot of kindness going on.  

As you point out in your book, kindness hides in all those bits and pieces we tend to overlook.  

Kindness is much wider than we think. We think of those heroic, extraordinary acts when people donate a kidney to a stranger or when they volunteer, but I think kindness is much bigger and it is actually all over the place. It goes from people making a cup of tea for someone to saving somebody’s life during an accident. What was exceptionally interesting in The Kindness Test was when asked about what acts of kindness they most often did, people told us about really small things, like doing favors for friends or holding doors for people. And they would often say “Oh, that’s just good manners,” but actually those gestures are done with the intention of benefiting someone else and are perceived as kindness by others.  

In The Kindness Test you actually allowed the people to define what kindness is. Why?

Academics will argue about the differences between empathy, kindness, and compassion, but since we knew many thousands of people would take part in the test, it was a great opportunity to know what it means in practical terms. People said kindness is empathy, care, helping, showing compassion, and love. And those words sum up and define kindness beautifully.  

Since kindness is being sprayed over us as tiny particles every day, how come we don’t cherish it? 

Psychology tells us that negative things have more salience for people. If you walk along the street, turn around and see there is a bear behind you, that is something you should know about. And it is more important than noticing a pretty little kitten beside the bear. We need to notice the bad and the dangerous to stay safe and to survive. Negative is the news. But what is also true is that this skews our image of what the world is like. Yes, there is terrible cruelty going on, but at the same time there is so much more kindness happening than we think. And it is interesting to know that in our global test we learned that people who notice more kindness around them have higher levels of well-being. So that suggests that nursing kindness is beneficial for us. That is why in my book I encourage people to become deliberate kindness watchers. If you don’t notice kindness, you are missing out on a lot of positivity that there is in the world.  

Can I train myself to focus on kindness? 

You can. And there are simple tools to do that. I kept a kindness diary when I was working on the book. I searched for three things: people being kind to others, people being kind to me, and me being kind to people. And that quickly changed my perspective. What we know from other psychological studies, is that if you ask people to write down before they go to sleep what were the three good things that happened to them that day, they automatically start to notice them more. This simple technique has a very powerful influence on us and I have been recommending it to many people for years. When the COVID-19 pandemic started and all the days were very dull, boring, and similar, I finally started practicing what I’ve been preaching. And I began noticing people talking to strangers, making the nice little everyday comments we exchange between each other; that it gives us the sense of a shared humanity and makes us feel like we’re in this together.  Even though we wrapped up our research months ago and the lockdowns are gone, I can’t stop seeing the goodness all around me. I go on the tube in London and see people giving away seats to others or passing them the gloves they dropped or umbrellas they left. It is really nice to feel you are actually surrounded by well-meaning people.  

In one way, the big global Kindness Test that you and your colleagues at the University of Sussex coordinated is an unprecedented celebration of kindness existing among people, but why did you decide to run it now? Were you afraid kindness is endangered or in retreat?  

I think it was actually the other way around. During the pandemic I just saw how kind people were to each other. I started checking if there’s any research on it, and I thought it would be very interesting to look at the evidence on why being kind to others is good for you, not only for those receiving it. And if it is so good, why don’t we do more of it. And we started chatting about these thoughts at the University of Sussex, where kindness is a big research area, and that’s how The Kindness Test came about. 

What were the most striking results? 

The ones concerning barriers to being kind. Being afraid of getting misinterpreted came out first in the study, followed by not having enough time. The lack of time is not very surprising, we know people are very busy nowadays and often do not act even if they think kindly and they wish to do something for others. But the fear of misinterpretation and feeling ashamed or embarrassed is a huge blockade. Since I learned this, I’ve worked hard not to be embarrassed when I talk to strangers or offer help. I tell myself that even if the worst comes, I’ll feel a little bit stupid for a moment, but I don’t really know the people, I will not meet them again—I can live with that. The risk is actually very low. It is important that we try to be braver in offering our help, attention, or a smile. Because what other research also tells us is that people respond to kindness very well. 

The Kindness Test was run in 144 countries. Did you encounter any lifestyle or cultural differences in the results? 

We were able to look into different countries but also larger areas of the world and compare them with each other. In terms of receiving and giving kindness, the differences were actually very small. Ireland scored highest, Canada came second, just before the United States and European countries. But kindness was substantially higher in Africa and Latin America than in Europe. In most countries, some two-thirds of people would say the COVID-19 pandemic had made people kinder, except in the United States, where 42% would say it had made people less kind—we found that very striking. Our guess is that public life and attitudes became much more polarized in the United States than in other countries, the discussions and arguments around wearing masks and getting vaccinated were very divisive. Donating money to others is higher in North America, Northern Europe, and Oceania, but donating time is higher in Africa and Asia—it might be because of the differences in income, but we were unable to measure that precisely. What we know is, for example, that the fear of being misinterpreted is a major barrier to showing kindness in Europe, Africa, and Asia, while in the United States and Australia it has much smaller influence. In North America it is social media—as a polarizing force—that people mostly point to as the biggest barrier to being kind. In Europe the lack of time stops us from acting to benefit others. What I found exceptionally interesting is that kindness is universally given and welcomed all around the world, it comes out as a common human trait. And secondly that it is personality—rather than nationality, gender, or religion—that makes a difference in our ability and willingness to act kindly.  

What I found amazing in the results was that the people who are kind to others enjoy benefits for much longer than those who receive kindness. 

Yes, and there are—apart from our test—many experiments to prove it. For example, in 2017 in a Coca-Cola factory in Madrid some workers were asked to do nice things for their colleagues and the well-being benefits lasted much longer in them than in the workers who enjoyed receiving kind gestures. The influence on improving the well-being of a kind person is, in most studies, moderate. It means kindness itself is not going to change one’s life completely, but that it can help achieve better well-being. It is significant, because this improvement is free and easy to do. And you can decide to be a kinder person today.   

Let’s try to pin the neuroscience behind that notion. How do you know being kind might actually improve one’s well-being?  

It is the neurological reward system that makes you feel better. If you put someone who gave away money or chocolate into a brain scanner you will see a warm glow that shines over the parts of the brain that are responsible for the reward system. Some additional areas also shine in the brains of people who give away time and things, and that doesn’t happen to a person who received something. That’s how we know giving is better than receiving. And other tests, using for example self-report questionnaires with well standardized scales, tell us that being kind has a longer lasting effect—people feel good months after they’ve done something for others. Those answers are on par with what we see in the MRI scans. 

But is it okay to benefit from being kind to others? Ethically speaking shouldn’t an act of kindness be completely selfless and somewhat saintly? 

I guess it came with various religions and their philosophies, hence we tend to think that there’s something wrong with enjoying being kind, that it’s not absolutely pure. But as a researcher I can assure you that acts of pure kindness are very hard to find. Even in cases of extraordinary sacrifice, like donating a kidney to a stranger, those who had done it say it was the best thing in their lives. They somehow enjoyed it, it gave them meaning, they gained something. Humans survived throughout the ages as a result of our cooperating skills, and because of that we are biologically built for kindness, our brains reward us when we do something kind to others. We have evolved to feel good when we are good to people, because then we can survive. So, I think we shouldn’t feel bad about the satisfaction and we shouldn’t worry too much about the motives. After all—the more kindness, the better. And it’s okay to deliberately decide to be a kind person in the way that suits you. That is how kindness works in reality. In the study, people were very honest in telling us they volunteer in things that please them, like gardening, and that they don’t help in things they are unwilling to do. For example, some are too shy to let a stranger know he’s dropped a glove. So, if you like to be the person who makes coffee for everyone in the office, that’s great. But if you prefer to donate money or take sheltered dogs for walks, that’s just as fine.  

Illustration by Mieczysław Wasilewski
Illustration by Mieczysław Wasilewski

Would it be too much to say that being kind makes us live longer in better health? 

There is growing research to support that. People who volunteer when they are older live longer. Kindness may have benefits for health, most of which might be indirect. Elderly people who volunteer go out more often, they walk and exercise physically and they feel more connected to people. And we know from research that loneliness also impairs health. So, it is probably the side-effect of being kind rather than the act of kindness itself that makes people live longer.  

What about the link between spreading kindness and getting our democracies in shape? Can kindness be linked to our abilities of keeping social dialogue, respecting minorities? 

One particular aspect of kindness seems important to how societies function and what kind of policies are introduced. I’m talking about the ability to understand other people’s feelings and seeing things from others’ points of view. Kindness itself is not enough to secure social justice, but it may bring down polarization and enhance dialogue. The trouble is that social media requires instant reactions and they shorten communication. The algorithms reward people for interactions, and the interactions are more common and more intense during arguments. Those polarizing situations become more visible to others online and that’s how we develop a skewed image of society. Millions of us agree that people who are extreme enjoy too much attention, so I think it is time we start rewarding the moderate and the measured on social media. 

How can we boost kindness?  

Well, just like parents do it when they teach kindness to kids. They actively support their children in sharing toys and things, they reward acts of goodness. I do acknowledge kindness has a bit of an image problem, it is seen as soft and we need to reclaim it as our strength. For example, in business the kind bosses hide by the notion of ethical leadership. Even the word “kind” is being avoided. It is surprising, because—as I already mentioned—kindness is a human strength, literally. It is what made us thrive as a species. It is because of kindness that we trust other people to behave decently. That is why we are able to trade with countries on the opposite side of a great ocean or order a parcel from a distant place in the world. We need to encourage people to talk about kindness more. As individuals we can actually, truly listen when people are talking to us and not look over their shoulders or at our phones—just really listen, with full attention, and let them know they are important and we care about what they say. Another thing we can do is to read more novels. There is plenty of evidence that novels improve our empathy, because what better way to get into somebody else’s head than read their stories. When we’re on social media it is important to pause and think before we click or send anything. First ask yourself: “Do I really want to send this? What good will it do?” I also think it’s important not to watch too much news, not to get overwhelmed by it and the negative side of things. Choose your source of news carefully and decide when you are going to use it. Also turn off notifications on your phone; if the news is truly important, it will reach you on time.  

You mentioned kind leadership. Is there any space for this form of soft power in politics? 

I came across a very interesting study about the tweets Donald Trump posted as president. It turns out even his supporters did not actively like his negative tweets and they didn’t approve of them either. In fact, they supported him in spite of those tweets rather than because of them. So, even his voters wanted him to be polite, not rude. Being unkind is therefore not a good long-term strategy for political leaders. I do think kindness is gaining traction and you can see it in public life. People are ready to talk about it now. Jacinda Adern, New Zealand’s former prime minister, said kindness is her strength and it got her to the office. In sports Gareth Southgate, England’s national soccer team manager, speaks openly about wanting his players to be kind to each other. The players emphasize how kind he is to them, and rather than being laughed at, he’s praised for it. I don’t think any of this would’ve happened ten years ago. In The Kindness Test, values mattered significantly. Those who value benevolence and universalism scored higher in kindness and those who value achievement and power were less prone to be kind. That is why I am optimistic and think kindness is having its moment! 

Can you imagine kindness being taught in schools? 

It’s happening already! Some of our doctors in the UK are trained in communication skills. That includes practicing being empathic and kind, and shows them what it feels like to be a patient receiving bad news. Some schools in the country are doing kindness projects for kids. They ask: “What are the three kinds of things you can do this week for your friends from class?,” “Can you plan them?,” etc. And schools really value kindness, they give gold stars to the kind kids and make them feel special. It is good encouragement.  

In the book you suggest we can not only exercise, but prepare ourselves for those exceptional moments, in which somebody’s life may depend on our ability to act kindly.  

We tend to regard the people who saved somebody’s life as heroes. But those heroes, who jump into a river to save a drowning child or pull somebody out of a burning car, or donate a liver, always say they are not special. And that anyone would do the same thing if they were there. One estimate says that on average each of us will have five situations in life, in which we can do something to save someone. So, it’s good to think in advance—how do I want to intervene in a situation like this, do I want to get involved, do I want to be the person to call the police, to ask others for help, to jump into the river... It’s good to think about it and make that call right now, to be mentally ready when the real challenge comes. One thing they always teach you in all first-aid courses is assertiveness. Whatever you do in a critical moment, be assertive and firm about it. And to achieve that you can decide your options well in advance.  

Being kind to others is one challenge. But being kind to oneself seems like the hardest thing! It gets mixed up with thinking of oneself as selfish or lazy. This reminds me of The Rest Test and your previous book The Art of Rest. We don’t know how to rest without feeling guilty about it either. 

The fear of self-compassion is quite common. We fear that if we are kind to ourselves, we will become spoiled and lazy, and we’ll never improve. That kind of thinking may harm us and it puts us at higher risk of depression. People who are kind to themselves are less prone to get depressed. 

One thing you can do, when you scold yourself for something you did, is to ask yourself a simple question: would I say the same to a friend or a colleague at work? I’m pretty sure that to a friend you’d say something compassionate and reassuring. Try to be understanding. And when you accuse yourself of being a slob or of being clumsy, ask yourself when was the last time you actually made a big mess or broke something? There is a big chance you make mistakes much less often than you tend to think. And remember—the scientific evidence is that being kind will be good for your mental health.  

Will my brain glow warmly if I am kind to myself? 

Absolutely! You will be rewarded and inspired to do it again and again. 

Is being well-rested an important factor in becoming a kinder person?  

Of course. It is harder to be kind if you’re feeling fatigued. We are all less patient and empathetic when we’re tired out. And in a practical sense—you can’t go and help others when you’re just beat.  

There is one activity that links both The Rest Test and The Kindness Test in a surprising way. It’s reading books. In the global study of rest, reading came on top as the most restful to most people. In the global research on kindness, you prove it is the best way to train empathy. So, is reading the perfect solution?  

It came as a surprise to learn that it is actually reading that gives people the best rest. Because it requires some mental effort to focus, make sense of words, and relate their meanings back to your memories and what you already know. When you read you need to think of all sorts of things. And maybe that is exactly why it works as the perfect distraction from your everyday thoughts and a good jumping point for daydreaming, which is also very relaxing. Both reading and daydreaming take you out of your world and into someone else’s. Reading guides you right into somebody else’s head, it makes you more understanding. So yes—it is a big key to kindness. 

If you were to choose how you will get written down in other people’s minds, would you rather be remembered as a pioneering researcher of kindness or as a kind person? 

Oh, I’d love to be remembered as just kind. Anyone can be a researcher of anything, but not everyone spreads kindness. I also present on BBC radio and on podcasts and I work with lots of people there. I do hope they find our endeavors ambitious and worthy, but I truly hope they see me as a nice and kind colleague to be with. That really matters more.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.


Introduction translated from the Polish by Mikołaj Gliński

Arranging an interview equals dozens of phone calls, hours of preparation and lots of stress. Ultimately, though, more often than not the conversations we have with our interviewees are immensely enjoyable. We hope you’ve also enjoyed reading this interview. Thank you for visiting our website! Please support PRZEKRÓJ Foundation.

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Paulina Wilk

Paulina Wilk

is Editor of the Culture & Society section, as well as a writer and journalist focusing on global development. Among others, she has published the non-fiction books “Lalki w ogniu” (Dolls on Fire: Stories from Modern India) and “Pojutrze. O miastach przyszłości (After Tomorrow: On Future Cities). She has also written a series of fairy-tales about a teddy bear called Kazimierz. She is the co-creator of the “Kultura nie boli” foundation, the bookshop, café and literary space Big Book Café, and the Big Book Festival.