When we hear stories of people paying it forward, or unexpected acts of kindness between strangers, we tend to spread the word, as with a fairy tale shared across generations. When we witness a friend, coworker or neighbour stand up for justice, it can be tempting to put that person on a pedestal. But in a world that needs dignity and integrity more urgently than ever, there’s no time for idealized values. It’s time to cultivate them now, in reality.
We spoke with experts on kindness and mindfulness about how to do this in ways small and large. If you ever wonder about the most effective ways to show compassion, or how to incorporate courage and advocacy into your routine, you’re in good company. By applying these insights for cultivating your inner everyday hero — and tips on how exactly how to do it — you’ll create a ripple effect that extends well beyond your life, and even your lifetime.
1. Cultivate Self-Awareness Through Self-Care
When we think about compassion, we usually think of concern and care for others. It’s impossible, though, to really nurture others if we neglect ourselves. As the saying goes, charity begins at home. “In the mix of our busy lives, we often forget about ourselves until something drastic happens, like falling sick or having a nervous breakdown,” said Pandit Dasa, an author and mindful leadership expert focused on well-being in the workplace. “If our needs — emotional, spiritual and physical — aren’t met, how will we sustainably give that care to others?”
Dasa pointed to the airline announcement about situating your own oxygen mask before turning to others in an emergency. In his keynote speeches and workshops at companies and organizations nationwide, Dasa encourages regular meditation or deep breathing, for leaders especially. From five minutes a day, you can increase to 20 or 30. With this foundation in place, your emotional awareness will expand, too.
2. Collaborate For A Culture Of Compassion
“From the time we’re children, if a parent gives a slightly better toy to one child, the other gets disturbed. That competitive tendency stays with us until we train to think differently,” said Dasa. “When I ask if people are happy to see others succeed at work, I often get strange looks. Jealousy and resentment tend to come more naturally.” In encouraging a culture of recognition and appreciation, Dasa urges people to step beyond their comfort zones and approach an accomplished coworker with congratulations. While building trust through camaraderie, taking that action also enhances the giver’s character and capacity for compassion.
3. Respect Each Person’s Inherent Value And Worth
It’s easy to be so preoccupied with ourselves that we forget about our impact on others. Public speaker, author and kindness expert Gabriella van Rij encourages us to regularly acknowledge what she calls “the forgotten invisible people” — the people you encounter every day, like office cleaners and security guards, but only notice when you don’t see them.
“You can radiate kindness in a two-mile radius every day,” she said. “Just open your eyes and look. When you take time to offer gratitude or say, ‘I noticed you were gone a few days — is everything OK?’ you’ll see them grow an inch taller from the inside. We all understand that time is valuable, so you can really amaze someone by making time to notice and listen.”
4. Be An Advocate For Justice
“When I was little, in 1966, I was adopted [from Pakistan to Holland]. No one had brown skin, and I got bullied every day,” said van Rij. “One day a girl who became my friend did the simplest thing. As other kids picked on me, she turned, smiled and put her hand on my shoulder. She didn’t dare do too much — she was scared, too. But she turned everything around for me with that small gesture.
When we act to promote social change and respect for everyone, especially those less powerful, we create a ripple effect. As circumstances are often beyond our control, at any given moment, one might be just a single paycheck away from being homeless, or one family member away from being an orphan, van Rij pointed out. So, always be kind and don’t judge anyone less fortunate.
5. Cultivate Your Resources And Take Action
Many of us are bystanders in life, hoping that others will step up. Van Rij believes that since we’re innately born with kindness, we can always learn to stand up for ourselves and other people. “Across all cultures, we all want to be noticed, wanted and loved,” she said. “Put kindness on like you do your clothes in the morning. Once you become active in practising this muscle, your ability to give will increase, and the person receiving your kindness will feel less alone and more capable.”
As part of her recently launched #DareToBeKind campaign, van Rij speaks about her childhood difficulties and her vivid memories of each moment that she was given a little nudge of kindness. “You are the difference,” she said. “One moment, one person, one kindness.” She makes the distinction: It’s one thing to be nice — holding the door open, saying “thank you” — but kindness involves going out of your way and operating from your heart. “The opportunities arise so spontaneously. Now they come to find me.”
6. Connect To Others Through Empathy
Empathy is another key ingredient to fostering connection and compassion. “One of the actions we can take to deepen our empathy is to listen to stories,” Tom Harshman, vice president of mission integration at Dignity Health, said. He suggests one way to become a good listener is to adopt a stance of curiosity, asking questions or encouraging people forward with head nods. And when engaging with people, listening, of course, to the content of the story itself, but also for the emotion that’s being communicated.
Harshman keyed into something we’ve likely all been guilty of at one time or another. “A lot of times what we do when we’re listening to people’s stories,” he said, “is we’re thinking of ways to relate to that story, and so we’re kind of only half listening [for] the way to connect our story with their story.” The impulse is a good one, he explains — to build community — but the fact that we’re not entirely listening means that we’re not able to hone in on the emotion in the story. He added, “And by being able to hear that emotion, that can resonate with our own emotions, and that’s where our capacity for empathy is deepened.”