Zoo-notable: A Year of Living Kindly

Attending the Pacific Northwest Writers Association last year provided me the opportunity to meet a wonderful author by the name of Donna Cameron. We were paired up in an ice-breaker activity and we discussed, of course, our writing. I shared about my work in progress, and she shared her experience with her first published book, A Year of Living Kindly.

I had a wonderful time at the conference. Besides the many incredible classes, and the positive experience pitching to agents, I met some fantastic writers and speakers. But no one stood out quite like Donna. After our meeting on the first night, I repeatedly ran into her, and she was just a positive radiant light of hope to me, an aspiring author. Without any hesitation, I bought her book at the conference (so I could get her to sign it) but didn’t get around to reading it until recently, when I ran out of library books during shelter-in-place self-quarantining.

I am so glad I picked this book up— it is absolutely jam-packed with wisdom on how kindness helps us and examples of how just small acts can literally change the world. I found it difficult to narrow it down to just a few big ideas, as I often find with these fabulous books. I highly recommend looking Donna Cameron up at your local bookstore (especially if you are in the Seattle area) and ordering a copy for yourself.

Donna Cameron

As tough as it was for me to pull out just a few top ideas that hit me, I managed it, and I’m super stoked to share with you what jumped out at me. So let’s dive into a Year of Living Kindly.

A Year of Living Kindly

I’ll start with how Donna started her book:

There may be a few bullies and tyrants who scoff at kindness, viewing it as a weakness, but the truth is very much the opposite: Kindness is a strength, a superpower that has the capacity to transform lives and change the world.”

“The happiness I experienced during my year of living kindly further clarified for me what brings joy. For me the most direct route to happiness is kindness. When I experience kindness, I am happy. It really is as simple as that. If I extend kindness, it makes me happy. If I am on the receiving end of kindness, it makes me happy. And if I witness kindness, or even read about it, it makes me happy.”

While A Year of Living Kindly taught Donna many lessons that she shares with her readers, there were points she returned to again and again.

  1. Kindness doesn’t just benefit others, we get something out of it, too
  2. Thoughts matter and kindness is more than just DOING, we can change our mindset to think kindly, also
  3. Kindness can literally change the world
  4. Kindness and gratitude go hand in hand, exponentially strengthening each other
  5. Kindness takes practice. It’s not a destination, it’s a path, and we need to consciously choose that path moment to moment.

And I want to take just a few minutes on each point to show how powerful these lessons are, and how important.

Big Idea #1- Kindness doesn’t just benefit others

“In an April 2014 article entitled “The Act of Kindness and Its Positive Health Benefits”, Danica Collins reported that there are numerous scientific studies showing that acts of kindness have a positive effect on our health and well-being.

When people perform acts of kindness, they benefit from a boost to the immune system and increase in serotonin production. The recipient of the kind act derives the same benefits, and—most surprising of all—people who merely witness an act of kindness get a similar boost.

The benefits of kindness don’t stop there. Ms. Collins cites research that people who are routinely kind get relief from chronic pain, stress, and insomnia, and they have an increase in happiness, optimism, and self-worth. Wonder drug, indeed!”

Perform Two Acts of Kindness and Call Me in the Morning

There are dozens of positive side-effects to kindness—from relieving symptoms of depression and social anxiety to lowering our blood pressure and risk of heart disease. It helps us sleep better (and just as a side note, sleep helps us be more kind). Plus it just feels good.

What’s more, kindness is contagious. Performing a kind act reinforces similar behavior in those who observe our generous act.

Kindness Starts with Me

Cameron tells us that a part of being kind to others means being kind to ourselves. We’ve heard it a million times “we can’t take care of (fill in the blank) until we take care of ourselves first.” If I don’t think I’m worthy of my own kindness, how can I be consistently kind to others. It starts with me.

I personally appreciate Cameron’s spin on the (slightly overplayed) Oxygen Mask Analogy. “Think about the original and literal setting. In an emergency situation, if you were a child or someone who might need assistance, would you prefer to get help from a person who is breathing calmly and offering assurance that this is a minor inconvenience that we will handle together, or from a wild-eyed martyr who may pass out at any moment?”

What would a kind person do in an emergency? Not just help and assist others, but they would help calm the situation down. We can’t be of help until we help ourselves with kindness.

So let’s be radiant exemplars, starting with ourselves, and create a happy and healthy ripple effect around us all.

Big Idea #2- Change Your Thoughts to Kindness

“When I am unkind, it’s probably more in thought than in deed. I exercise unkind thoughts more often than unkind actions. For me, unkind thoughts seem to creep in when I am in the most ordinary of circumstances, surrounded by others who—like me—are just trying to get in, get out, and get on to the next thing.

So what’s the big deal? My thoughts are my own. Who am I harming by judging people in my head? If no one else, I’m wounding myself: I’m reinforcing a habit of negativity. I’m separating myself from others who may be doing the best they can under circumstances I can never know. I’m not being my best self. Where my patience and understanding might improve an encounter, instead I silently criticize. Our thoughts matter.

Maybe the individuals are selfish and self-absorbed, and there’s no redeeming justification for their behavior. Am I made better by judging them? I suppose I have the satisfaction of being right, but I’ve come to learn that there’s a greater satisfaction in being kind.”

Suspending Judgement

Or at least be kind to them

Cameron talks a lot throughout the book about different ways our thoughts lead to kind (or sometimes unkind) actions. And suspending judgement, pausing even before we react in our minds, can have a profound impact on not just our well-being, but make the situation in general more bearable. We may be in the right, but as she puts it “being kind is more important than being right.”

It’s easy to get angry or judge people harshly. But we may never know what other people are experiencing. Cameron shares the Stephen Covey story of him on the subway with disruptive children, and how understanding the full situation (their mother had just died at the hospital) changed his perspective. But we won’t always know what’s going on with others. The kind action is to give a positive benefit of the doubt in any situation.

Assuming Positive Intent

Giving the benefit of the doubt is a much kinder reaction to the situation, and to our own well-being. It gives us piece of mind, we instantly feel better even when we are initially irritated, if we go down the “kindness route” rather than the vindictive judgement route.

One way to choose kindness in situations where we usually judge is to let curiosity assume positive intent. Our colleague likely didn’t mean to act in a way we found off-putting. Maybe our colleague is having a bad day, and just came across as short or snarky because something else is going on in their life that you don’t know. By not responding negatively to their negativity, we may help diffuse the situation rather than amp it up. Besides, if the tables were reversed, wouldn’t we want others to suspend judgement and give us the benefit of the doubt as well?

The Virtue Game

Suspending judgment also means to stop looking for the bad in every situation, as well. As Cameron puts it “look for the music rather than the missed note.”

This reminds me of the Virtue Game Brian Johnson plays with his kids. When someone rushed past them while they were on a trail without saying “excuse me”, the Johnsons might exclaim “wow, he has a lot of zest to be able to pass us on the trail with such ease.” If someone isn’t paying attention to where they are going, they might muse “I bet they are exhibiting an appreciation for beauty and excellence”. How can you find the good within an annoyance? What virtues can you find, or beautiful music hidden within?

Big Idea #3- Change the World With a Little Kindness

 “It may be a useful exercise to ask “What’s the worst that could happen?” But I also think that’s only one side of the coin. The other side offers us a more important question: “What’s the best that could happen if I extend a kindness?”

  • I might help someone feel good or make it through a tough day
  • My words or actions might be just what someone else needs to extend a kindness themselves.
  • I might be appreciated.
  • I might be regarded as loving, compassionate, or wise.
  • I might become more confident in my own values and actions.
  • I might overcome a fear and be the better person I want to be.
  • I might change the world.”

We might change the world from our small, kind actions. I love this. As Cameron explains “We never know how far our kindness will reverberate. Will the smile we extend to the bus driver cause him to greet each passenger with a kind word, and will each of those people, in turn, extend a kindness that they otherwise might not have, and will one of those kindnesses—or a further kindness—mend a heart, lift someone from despair, or even save a life?”

When They Go Low…We Practice Living Kindly

Being kind in circumstances where we are in a disagreement with someone else doesn’t necessarily mean we bend over and accept a belief or way of doing things that we feel is wrong. This has never been more important than right now as I’m writing this note, we are approaching the 2020 elections. Debates are bound to be heated. The country will likely become more divided. How can we extend kindness in these situations without losing our own core beliefs? Civil dialogue, assuming positive intent (yes, even with the opposition), and being respectful. We will win no hearts (or votes) by name-calling. (As Michelle Obama said, regardless your political stance, it’s pretty poignant- “When they go low, we go high”, meaning we don’t give up the value and virtue of love in a situation where someone is displaying ignorance or hate).

A Year of Living Kind Towards the Planet

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And this kindness to change the world doesn’t stop with fellow human beings. You don’t even have to go huge with big-action conservancy or enormous disruptions to your daily life. What small action can we do to protect and nurture the planet that nurtures and protects us?

I speak on this issue often with ZooFit. Take care of yourself (kindness begins with you) while taking care of the planet. Eat healthy food and take significant action towards saving the rainforests and endangered species. Spend time outdoors (working out or in leisure/recreational activities) and develop a deeper appreciation for nature. This can inspire slightly bigger actions—planting a tree, or supporting a conservation organization. And through kind actions, we complete a positive feedback loop where we feel good AND have a better impact on the planet, which may inspire even bigger acts for the environment, such as volunteering or riding a bike instead of driving.

5% Kinder

Our actions can make a difference, no matter how small they are. Donna presented an exercise which reminded me of Tal Ben-Shahar’s Pursuit of Perfect and his 5% exercises. Donna asks us to consider how our lives could change, and how our world could change if we were just 5%, or even 1% kinder. Think of the ramifications—to our own health, our community as we shine bright as radiant exemplars, and the planet as we improve our impact on the environment and other living creatures.

Big Idea #4- Mindful Kindness

“Both gratitude and kindness ask us to slow down. Slowing down isn’t always easy in our overscheduled and overactive lives. But slowing down is essential if we are to notice and appreciate the sunrise, the crocuses bursting forth, the birds circling overhead like ice-skaters with wings. And slowing down is essential if we are to notice the smile on the cashier’s face, the door held open for us, or the myriad opportunities before us each day to extend our own kindnesses.”

Mindfulness Cultivates Compassion

A Year of Living Kindly is an absolute gold-mine linking mindfulness, gratitude, and the benefits of practicing kindness. For example, research from Jon Kabat-Zinn (he’s got credentials a mile long, among them—the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School) shows that mindfulness cultivates compassion, helping people recognize when others—even strangers—are in need.

It’s true for self-kindness, too. If we are aware in our lives, we are more likely to recognize when we are tired and need rest, or when we are stressed and need to pause. Cultivating awareness helps us respond to others, but remember we can’t live a life of kindness if we are not also kind to ourselves.

Kindness Appreciates When We Appreciate Kindness

Opportunities to extend kindness are all around us, but they’re easy to miss if we aren’t paying attention. How often have we missed holding the door for someone or helping a neighbor with packages because we are absorbed in our own thoughts? Being more mindful may help us recognize despair on a friend’s face and take the time to listen to their story. We can help a child deal with disappointment or rejection. But if we are oblivious, we miss all these instances where we might make a difference.

There is a simple practice for mindfulness and kindness. That is through practicing gratitude. I remember Tal Ben-Shahar sharing this in Pursuit of Perfect and in his coaching session, with me. Appreciation appreciates. The more you show gratitude, the more there is to be grateful for.

When we are feeling negative emotions, practice gratitude. It’s nearly impossible for us to feel anger or fear while simultaneously expressing gratitude. We are less likely to respond negatively when we are being mindful and our hearts are grateful. Gratitude seems to neutralize negative emotions.

3 Questions for Cultivating Gratitude

Cameron shared a practice I have adopted since reading this book. Each night, answer these three questions:

  1. What surprised me today?
  2. What moved or touched me today?
  3. What inspired me today?

At first, this practice was hard for me. “Nothing surprised me today…” I thought more than once. But if you keep searching, you will think of something. “Oh right, I was inspired by that quote shared in the writing class”.

When we appreciate something, we develop deep love. It’s not just love for another human being, but for the planet.  I love how Cameron put it: “If we stand in awe at the edge of the ocean, or if we marvel at the canopy of trees above us as we hike through the nearby hills, our natural desire is to shield them from harm, to assure that they will always be there for us and for future generations to appreciate.”

Gratitude and mindfulness make conservation possible.

Big Idea #5–  Kindness Takes Practice

“Kindness isn’t a destination, and it most certainly isn’t something that one achieves and from that day forward always has at the ready. What I realized as the year progressed is that kindness is something I must commit to every morning, something I keep in my awareness, and something I recommit to when I stumble off the path (which still happens occasionally and always will).”

Strengthen Your Kindness Muscle

Kindness takes practice. This is necessary if we want to get better at anything in life. We need to practice playing golf if you want to hit par. You need to write—like a lot—if you want to be an author. So it is with kindness. We must use and strengthen our kindness muscle with consistent practice.

And this goes especially for when we don’t feel like being kind. It may not be a good time for us personally, but it is almost always the right time to practice kindness.

 “Just as it is easy to be happy when the sun is shining and everything’s going our way, it’s easy to be kind when our kindness takes little effort, or when we know it will be appreciated, or when the recipient of our kindness is someone we know and like.” I get it. I don’t always feel like doing the things I commit to doing. But here’s the thing: “A life of kindness means being kind when it’s neither convenient nor easy—in fact, sometimes it might be terribly hard and tremendously inconvenient. That’s when it matters most.” If not to others, than to ourselves. When I don’t feel like exercising, but do the workout anyways, it is the most empowering feeling. Same with kindness. As Brian Johnson says “the worse I feel, the more committed I am to my protocols.”

Micro-Win Your Kindness Habit

Just like exercise, writing, or any other healthy habit, establish the kindness habit by creating micro-wins. Start small, and build from there (to repeat a lot of what James Clear says in his book Atomic Habits– “so easy, you cannot fail”). Find the simple joys that accompany micro-kindnesses—warm feelings, spontaneous smile, and slight bounce in our step.

Maintain momentum by spiraling up by the smallest percentage. Be 5%, or even 2% kinder to ourselves and others. Not a lot, but just enough to notice the difference it makes. Let that small incremental change take root and flower. With enough practice, you get in the flow of kindness—and that’s when the magic happens.

Donna Cameron writes “Kindness isn’t something that I can adopt for a single year and then move on. My #1 job is kindness. That’s what I’m here for. So a year of living kindly becomes a commitment to living kindly. There will be slips, there will be stumbles, but after each I will get back on the path and keep moving forward—optimistically.”

A Year of Living Kindness Manifesto

So that just about wraps up this Zoo-notable. A Year of Living Kindly ends with Donna sharing her Kindness Manifesto, her big take-aways from her year-long turned lifetime project.

  • Pay attention
  • Withhold judgement
  • Pause
    • You don’t need to respond instantly. Think about the kind response, which is often silence.
  • Receive graciously
  • Take care of you
    • Kindness begins with self. If we cannot be kind to ourselves, we have little to offer others. Accept your shortcomings, forgive your blunders, hold your boundaries, and indulge in simple pleasures.
  • Be grateful
  • Every kindness matters, even the smallest
  • If kindness isn’t evident, look harder
    • If you still can’t see it, make it yourself
  • Always choose kindness. You will never regret it.

Quotes on Living Kindly

“I saw that my life would matter if, at its end, people said of me ‘She was a kind person.’ I could think of no greater eulogy.” -Donna Cameron

Rarely does someone else’s abundance mean a dearth for us. It doesn’t work that way. Success and good fortune—like sunshine—are not rationed. There is an ample supply for everybody.” – Donna Cameron

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” -Chief Seattle

“If we are to have a long-term perspective on compassion, we must  recognize that kindness begins with self and radiates outward.” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” -Rumi

And finally, Aesop said, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

That’s all I’ve got for this wonderful book. A Year of Living Kindly. Let’s practice one act of kindness today to make a better world tomorrow. And forever.

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