February 27, 2020

Janice, our CEO, wrote a blog for Arts Council England which was published on Random Acts of Kindness Day. It was part of a longer piece which she wanted to share here in our latest Kindness Column.


Earlier this month we celebrated Random Acts of Kindness Day. It was a day when we heard a lot about making small gestures of kindness towards others – smiling at a stranger, giving way at a traffic junction, sending an uplifting message to a friend or co-worker. We also heard many more serious, heartfelt words about the impact of unkindness, and the important role the media and social media can play in spreading hurt and negativity.

There has been much said over the last couple of weeks about how we need to think about others, how we need to practice empathy, communicate with kindness, stand against bullying and unkind behaviour and understand how our actions might make others feel.

Interestingly, doing a kind act won’t only make the recipient feel better, it’ll make you feel good too. For a few moments you both might feel happier and more connected. You may even have started a chain reaction, with the recipient subsequently showing intentional kindness in the course of their day, because kindness is contagious and as it ripples outwards, its impact grows rather than fades.

So far so good. But how can we make kindness more embedded and less of an occasional treat? How can we put it at the front and centre of how we live our lives and make our decisions? How can we make kindness the cake and not just the icing?

In 2018, a You Gov survey found levels of empathy in the UK were plummeting, with over 50% of respondents saying they’d noticed less empathy towards others over the previous year and only 12% saying they’d seen an increase in the ability of people to put themselves in others’ shoes. In 2016, a study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology measured compassion and emotionality in over 60 countries, ranking the UK as one of the least empathetic countries in the world. More recently, The Carnegie UK Trust, who are doing some pioneering work around kindness in Scotland, have published a report that shows only 36% of people in England think others in their area are ‘generally kind’ – the lowest level in the UK and Ireland. When they asked about core public services, the picture was even bleaker, with only 33% feeling they are treated with kindness by public libraries. Again, these levels are lower than in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This reflects what we see, hear and read every day – more and more evidence of how polarised and fragmented our world has become. Many of us are frustrated and angry, particularly with people whose views are different to ours, and that anger kills compassion and fuels the flames of intolerance because all we see is the difference, not the similarities.

Most people reading this will believe passionately that the arts can play an important role in tackling some of these big issues. Arts Council England expresses it in their new strategy, Lets Create, which offers creativity and culture as a means to help us better understand ourselves and each other, uniting communities at a time when the country is grappling with deep cultural, social and economic divisions. Kindness will be an essential ingredient in this process.

Let’s also assume that most of us believe a kinder world would be a better world – increased levels of empathy would lead to greater tolerance, less anger, more compassion, a stronger drive to act in an altruistic way.

At People United we focus on how we can live well in the world together, using creativity and the arts to tap into people’s potential for kindness. Our projects embrace the light, shade and complexities of what it is to be human. Our research has shown that taking part in creative activities engages four powerful mediators that influence how participants learn, the emotions they experience, the connections they make and the values they hold. This, in turn, sparks feeling of empathy, fast-tracks the breaking down of barriers, encourages us to learn from and about each other, and inspires open-minded exploration of human values. In other words, the arts can be a super-conductor for kindness, influencing how we see the world, how we see ourselves and how we behave towards each other.

We’re a small organisation, but we aim to be a catalyst, activating ripples of kindness far and wide. One of the ways we do this is by contributing to wider research and provoking conversations about how the arts can help to create a more kind and caring society.

A few months ago, we held a symposium at The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, called Provoking Change: The Arts and Kindness Conversation. The speakers – from all over the country – talked about how their work had impacted on the lives of homeless people, had changed outcomes for children, was influencing policy, resolving conflict, helping people make a real difference in their lives. During the course of the day it struck me that most of the presentations, and conversations, were about how people worked rather than what they produced – and that’s always been central to our thinking about arts and kindness too. They spoke about the role of kindness in their day to day, how they took time to listen and learn about and from each other, the importance of working alongside participants, co-producing with them, the influence of kind leadership on organisational confidence, behaviour and relationships. In essence, they talked about living their values, always learning and constantly challenging their own behaviours and boundaries. Underpinned by a passionate belief in the positive role creativity and kindness can play, at both an individual and societal level, this was radical kindness in action. The sort of kindness that really can change the world.

Making random acts of kindness is immediate and personal, and it spreads joy. But kindness is about so much more than being nice to strangers – although that is a very good place to start. As the hashtag to ‘be kind’ is being increasingly used as a real and rousing rallying call, it offers us an opportunity to think more deeply about kindness and the relationship between arts and kindness. To consider how kindness can be woven into our creativity, our thinking and behaviour so it flows through everything and influences everything. Kindness that goes beyond the soft and warm, but is strong, brave and potentially transformational. In other words, kindness that is not random but radical.


Cover photo by Simon Ray on Unsplash.

  1. This selfish mentality has been encouraged by our government, with its demonisation of people unable to contribute to the economy, and its emphasis on individual enterprise. What is desperately needed is more empathy, as well as more working together, collectively. ❤️🌹

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