The year 2017 has a surprise in store if you oppose Donald Trump and his policies.
So far you’ve probably been trying to manage a wild range of emotions: fear and panic about executive orders; disbelief as his most avid supporters buy his verifiable lies; shock with every revelation about Russiagate.
Now here’s the surprise: 2017 will be the year you learn the value of practicing kindness at least if the resistance has anything to say about it.
We know what you’re thinking. Only saints, kindergarten teachers, and muppets are perpetually kind. The rest of us typically struggle to get through the day without side-eyeing a stranger or laying on the car horn in rush hour traffic.
But there’s a good reason why kindness has become a mantra for those fighting Trump. After doing something nice for someone else, studies show we feel happier: That behavior activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure and reward. Americans fighting Trump and his agenda desperately need that kind of pick-me-up. More importantly, though, they also see generosity as a forceful expression of their resistance because it help builds a world in which compassion reigns even if the president’s policies seem designed to appeal to fear, scorn, and division.
Make no mistake the focus on kindness isn’t a way to prioritize empathy for Trump voters above all else, as some pundits controversially suggested the opposition do in the wake of the election. It’s about discovering how solidarity and kindness are intertwined at the personal and institutional level, and understanding their combined potential to bring about change.
“The more positive things you put out there … the more [kindness] can replicate itself,” says Jennifer Rosen Heinz, a longtime liberal organizer and activist from Madison, Wisconsin.
Heinz has played an important role in making kindness a central cause for those trying to defeat Trump’s agenda. Soon after the election, she spontaneously got involved in distributing a lawn sign that broadcasts a powerful message. “In this house,” it reads, “we believe: Black Lives Matter / Women’s Rights are Human Rights / No Human is Illegal / Science is Real / Love is Love / Kindness is Everything.”
The part about kindness struck Heinz. “Everyone felt so broken,” she says of the gloomy weeks following the election. Focusing on acts of generosity felt like a way to channel grief into positivity. “I very much believe in the power of words and the power of gestures.”
“The idea that I was giving to other humans in pain was a helpful feeling to me.”
Heinz didn’t know the Wisconsin woman who’d written the message on a poster, but she saw a picture of her and the sign. Moved by the declarative and inspiring words, Heinz ultimately got permission to reprint the sign with a new design, set up a Facebook page (“Kindness is Everything”) to help distribute it, and worked to ensure that proceeds from sales went to local and national nonprofits, including the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health and ACLU. The sign got viral attention on Pantsuit Nation, the private Facebook page that has nearly 4 million members. Now it’s in neighborhoods all over America, including in Austin, Orlando, Brooklyn, and San Francisco.
Some of the most moving stories to emerge from the resistance revolve around acts of kindness. In November, a few weeks after the election, a Texas man stood outside of a mosque with a sign that read: “You Belong. Stay Strong. Be Blessed. We Are One America.” When a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis was vandalized in February, a campaign organized by Muslim-Americans raised more than $160,000 to repair the damage.
One of our favorite writers, Ashley C Ford (@smashfizzle), wrote: “I have been thinking a lot about how to prepare for the worst, how to fight for justice, and how to change the world. And I have also been thinking about my duty to make room for the good times, because nobody is meant only to fight. And joy from the margins is radical. I’ve been reading the books I miss reading because they remind mewith each sentenceof the kind of girl I used to be and the kind of woman I always wanted to be. I am still making room for her. And for joy. And for you.” (: @rayoandhoney)
Heinz knows from many years of activism that it can be tricky to balance outrage with kindness. For her it often means transforming anger into action rather than letting the emotion swallow her whole. At the same time, she continues to look for opportunities to lend a hand in small and large ways. In the past several months, that has included taking soup to sick friends, giving more money to GoFundMe campaigns for strangers in need, and “rage donating” to the ACLU.
“The idea that I was giving to other humans in pain was a helpful feeling to me,” says Heinz.
How kindness makes you feel
That positive emotions flow from kindness may seem intuitive, but scientists are just beginning to understand how that happens. The behavior we casually call kindness is defined as “prosociality” in scientific research. That umbrella term encompasses actions we take to help others without concern for our own personal benefit, which can be as minor as holding the door for a stranger and as life-changing as donating an organ.
Some researchers once believed that coming to someone’s aid was the psychological equivalent of eating vegetables an ultimately beneficial act but one that required self-control to complete because it objectively didn’t seem that fun or personally rewarding.
Jamil Zaki, director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory, says that view doesn’t hold up to emerging research that reveals when people are kind, they engage parts of their brain associated with instinctive behavior like drinking water and eating. It also produces activity in regions of the brain linked to reward-based decision-making, where the feel-good chemical dopamine plays an integral role. So instead of seeing generosity as a vegetable you tolerate, Zaki says it’s more like chocolate, something you crave and enjoy.
There is increasing evidence of a cause-and-effect link between kindness, brain chemistry and personal happiness. Lara Aknin, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Simon Fraser University, says kindness positively influences our emotional and physiological well-being. In a 2010 study, she and other researchers gave 50 college students an envelope with $10 and instructed them to share as much as they liked with students in the room who hadn’t received anything. The more money students kept, the more negative emotions they felt, including shame.
Aknin also took saliva samples from the students to measure their levels of the stress hormone cortisol before they received the money and after they decided what to do with it. Feelings of shame predicted a slower cortisol recovery. Meanwhile, those who gave more money away reported more positive feelings. Aknin has replicated the finding that giving more money predicts more happiness in more recent studies.
“Generosity tends to lead to greater happiness when it allows people to create a social connection.”
There are, however, some limitations to people’s goodwill. If people feel forced to do kind deeds, says Aknin, the emotional benefits are diminished or disappear altogether. People also like to see that their actions have a positive impact for others and in-person experiences seem to be much more rewarding.
“Generosity tends to lead to greater happiness when it allows people to create a social connection,” says Aknin.
That insight is essential to understanding the role of kindness in the resistance movement against the Trump administration. Instead of claiming generosity with a smug or selfish attitude, it can become a rallying cry for building genuine solidarity with unlikely allies and communities or individuals whose lives and livelihoods are under attack.
“In times like these, we can try to do whatever soothes our conscience or mind,” says Zaki. “But if you look at [kindness] only in that way, it becomes something shallow … Theres something more potentially important than feeling good as an individual, which is forming community.”
Why it’s so hard to be kind right now
If you feel too exhausted or cynical to practice kindness, you’re not alone.
“[I]n our culture, there are lots and lots of adrenalized people,” says Frederic Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, referring to adrenaline, which the body releases when the brain perceives a threat to survival. “When youre dealing with fear, people dont make great decisions and [they] react emotionally.”
Even if kindness is instinctive, negative feelings like anxiety and panic can drown out good intentions. Research on compassion, forgiveness and meditation, however, shows that we can tame those powerful emotions. Compassion, says Luskin, helps us create goodwill toward people, even those with whom we disagree. Consistent meditation can change the way the brain responds to stress and fear. Forgiveness research even shows people can co-exist with people they once hated.
“These are psychological techniques we could be using to turn down the temperature,” Luskin says. Basically, the calmer our brains become even when engaged in serious, complex questions about government policies – the easier it is to practice kindness.
Expecting generosity from everyone resisting Trump ignores the reality that people will suffer differently. For the undocumented immigrant fighting deportation, kindness may remain important, but so is getting legal representation. And we wouldn’t demand that person calmly practice compassion or forgiveness toward Trump himself or his voters, even if those principles are a guiding force of kindness.
That’s where the mantra of “kindness of everything” becomes messy and, well, flawed. Critics of the left may even call it hypocritical, particularly if being kind only applies to helping those who share your ideological beliefs.
At the same time, it can seem self-defeating to show goodwill to someone who isn’t very interested in reciprocating it, or who endorses bigotry in words or policy. Trump voters, many of whom surely practice acts of kindness, might find unexpected allies among the opposition if they focused on those moments, even if it means rejecting some of Trump’s objectionable rhetoric and actions. And yet, healing our festering political divisions requires a political and moral reckoning far beyond what individual acts of kindness can achieve.
But kindness can offer something essential: an emotional boost for the weary and a powerful way to counter Trump’s nasty rhetoric and divisive policies. On this long journey, those resisting Trump will need every ounce they can get.
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