health & kindness

Who's behind this? - a bit about me

Hi - my name is Helen.  I live in New Zealand, in Wellington - a very very windy city where I have learned to accept the ups and downs of changeable weather - this has been very good training for me, helping me to accept the inevitable ups and downs of life!  You will catch glimpses of this rather lovely city in some of my photographs.

So why am I writing about health and kindness, what is my intention?
Quite simply, I see so much needless suffering in the world, and it grieves me.  My intention is to live with appreciation and kindness and to help reduce the hurt which is caused by things that prolong pain and cause suffering - things like blame, shame, disrespect, intentional harm, injustice.  I hope and believe that the things I've learned about reducing suffering might be useful for more people than those I see in my day to day life - hence this website and the resources I will offer.

I've worked as a doctor for a very long time - 4 decades (yikes - how did that happen?!)  It's a wonderful privilege to be part of people's lives at times of crisis and distress.  I've learned a great deal for myself as well as for the people I have been trying to help.

My experience has shown, over and over again, that a kind and caring attitude towards ourselves, whatever our situation, is an important part of healing and being well.  It sounds so simple, but for a lot of us it’s extremely difficult.  If that’s not the case for you, that’s really great.  But for many of us it's often very hard to find kindness when we are experiencing regret, anxiety, overwhelm, and confusion about managing our health and our lives well.

It is quite simple, really - but it can be hard to make it a priority, and there can be many other blocks. 

So I hope that this website and the resources I plan to offer can provide you with some inspiration, information and ideas that will help you add kindness to your recipe for well being, and that this will help you to have a strong foundation from which you can reflect this precious skill to others and the world around you.

As a child I tried very hard to please, to be a good girl and do what others wanted.  But no matter how hard we try, we can't please everyone.  Well before I became a doctor, and not because of anybody being particularly horrible, I learned to be critical of myself, to doubt myself, to feel I wasn’t measuring up no matter how much I tried.  Medical School reinforced these traits!  (And of course, it is important to do the right thing as a doctor - but often that isn't as clear cut as it might seem.)

It has been hard work to undo that pattern - to unlearn excessive self-doubt and criticism and to practice kindness to myself.  

But practising kindness has helped me to be calmer, less self-critical and worried about being good enough, more open and resilient, and hopefully more helpful to others.  It has also helped me to respond with less fear and anger to the attitudes and actions of people who cause hurt and damage.  I find it very painful to see the ways in which unkindness in its many forms can be so dominant in our world.  I work on how I can more effectively contribute to countering the impact of the cruel and hurtful - it's usually so much harder to heal than it is to prevent injury!  But I know that kindness is a sure guiding principle.  And I find great pleasure and feel restored by spending time in the natural world - by the sea (where I live), in the bush (NZ term for forest) and gardens, pottering with plants, and photographing the beauty that I see.  (And I have a website that reflects those passions - thegoodearth.co.nz) 

I'm not some brave paragon.  I struggle with change, I don’t make new habits easily.  But with what I’ve observed and learned over a long time, in my own life and the lives of those I have cared for, I want to offer you this opportunity to develop and strengthen your own capacity for kindness and well being.
I reckon, if I can find more kindness, so can you!

(Please be clear - this site is about how we go about living and dealing with our health - it does not provide medical advice and does not take the place of getting professional attention and care for any health problems.)

One of my favourite places - amidst the trees in the Otari Native Botanic Garden

One of my favourite places - amidst the trees in the Otari Native Botanic Garden


What is kindness?

Are we talking about the same thing?  And why is it important?

If asked, most of us would probably agree that kindness is a Good Thing.

If we know what it's like to experience kindness (and I hope you do) we know that genuine kindness feels good - whether we're giving or receiving it. 

But do we think that kindness is necessary for our well being?  Apparently not so much - in fact there are a lot of misunderstandings about kindness.

What kindness isn't

Some people question the motivation behind kindness,  or they'll say that it's superficial,  or a pretense,  or even that it's not natural for us humans and can’t be real.

But kindness isn’t just a self-serving act - it isn’t doing things to look “good,”  to be seen as doing the “right” thing,  to impress others,  to earn “brownie points,”  or to hide our nasty nature.  This isn't true kindness - behaving this way is more about embellishing our self-image - and it's likely to feel cold and hollow to the people on the receiving end.

And kindness isn't about pretending,  hiding how we really feel,  deceiving ourselves or others - smiling through gritted teeth,  putting being “nice” and “positive” ahead of dealing with things that aren’t ok.  That's avoidance, not dealing with things that are uncomfortable rather than having the confidence of kindness, that we can and will manage them.

It isn’t about being meek,  complacent or unassertive - just going with the flow and not rocking the boat.  That's another avoidance - giving up and not kindly holding to our values.

Nor is it a sign of weakness, of lacking a winner’s instinct - you don’t have to give up kindness to be very effective and successful.

Kindness isn’t the mark of a martyr.  People who seem to give and give, neglecting their own needs until they hit burnout - they aren’t being too kind, they are being unkind (to themselves and, ultimately, to others.)

It isn’t some lightweight sugary schmaltzy superficial thing - sweet but with no substance.  Like good nourishment, kindness isn’t optional if we want to live well.

Most importantly, kindness is a natural part of being human, a strength that helps us to survive and thrive. 

People often emphasise “fight or flight” human behaviour, but this isn't our baseline state - it’s a survival reflex, a response to stress and felt danger.  The stress response can result in suspicion, aggression towards anyone perceived as a risk.  While it helps with immediate danger, staying in this state keeps us tense, guarded, looking for what's wrong.  It does not allow us to thrive and in fact harms our long term health and well being. 

The human capacity for kindness has a much more lasting and positive impact on our ability to survive.  Our human ancestors were very vulnerable if alone (as we still can be), but in a cooperative social group they were able to thrive. 

Prosocial behaviour such as kindness has been a critically important part of human development.  Kindness and cooperation is wired into our brains, part of our basic nature, ensuring our survival. 

So, what is kindness?

For a start, kindness can be used to describe an attitude, a quality of feeling, a type of behaviour or way of doing things.   "Kind" comes from the word kin, and incorporates the idea of belonging, and the group we belong to - “humankind.”

Kindness can be reflected in our attitudes, it can be experienced as a feeling or quality in how we respond to ourselves or others, and it can be seen in the things we do - a kindness is a kind act.

If we look for definitions of the words kind and kindness we find a wide range of “positive” qualities - the idea of ethical behaviour,  of generosity,  friendliness,  concern for others,  thoughtfulness and caring,  and a capacity to learn about the needs and sensitivities of others.  Kindness is respectful,  warm-hearted,  considerate,  seeking not to cause harm or damage (as in “kind to the environment”).  “Fellow-feeling” is another way of describing kindness - this reminds us that in being kind we are showing some awareness and consideration of what a situation is like for someone else because of what we have learned through our own experiences.  It reminds us that kindness reflects our connection and shared experience as humans rather than being about the things that separate us.

This is the kindness I am talking about.


Like these clouds, kindness might look just soft and fluffy

But like the water in the clouds

Kindness sustains life

Why is kindness important?

Sometimes it’s easiest to see whether something is important if we consider what it’s like when it isn’t around.  (“We don’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone”).  So what's life like without kindness?  

Not attractive!
Words used to define unkindness include harshness, lacking consideration, cruelty, meanness, hurtfulness, disparagement, disrespect, abuse.

We get the idea!  Unkindness is stressful to be around, and likely to cause distress - pain, suffering, unhappiness, a sense of rejection.  And when unkindness is inflicted on us we are likely to feel hurt, inadequate, not good enough, isolated from others.
If we look at the news and ask whether each news item reflects kindness or unkindness, we can easily see the damage that is caused by unkindness.  Unkindness is seen in neglectful and actively harmful attitudes and acts - harsh treatment of people we differ from or disagree with,  cruelty to animals,  damage to the living environment,  acts of aggression,  violence,  terror and war,  ignoring or rejecting people’s cries for help,  grasping and greed,  corruption and dishonesty,  and so on.

It’s pretty clear that without kindness humanity can become ever more destructive and cause ever more devastation.  It’s a bleak picture.

In contrast, kindness can be seen when people - individuals and groups - reach out to help others.  It can be seen in tender care for the elderly and very young,  in support given to parents who are struggling,  in providing comfort for people in distress.  It's there when people fundraise and provide practical help, when they step up in emergencies,  when we provide decent housing and health care and access to resources for all people,  when we respect ourselves and others.

It also provides fuel for creativity.  Who would have thought that rats could be trained (kindly) to sniff out landmines or tuberculosis and save thousands of people from injury and death or undiagnosed illness.  But yes, it’s true (https:// www.apopo.org/en/).  A man whose (Buddhist) practice involves loving kindness/ compassionate awareness came up with this idea.

Kindness is part of basic decency towards each other.  It brings warmth, respect, caring, thoughtfulness, a preparedness to help, to give, and to receive.  It provides a sense of safety, of mutual support.  These are the conditions that allow us to grow and develop physically, emotionally and intellectually.  They are the conditions in which strong social networks develop.  And where there is the mutual respect of kindness, societies are able to function more effectively and to prosper. 

They are less divided, less liable to aggression and disintegration.  Not so bleak.

So, would you argue against the importance of kindness? 

Health benefits of kindness

There are lots of health benefits associated with kindness in its many manifestations - kind attitudes, kind ways of doing things, kind acts, social groups with kindness as a defining value, a kind environment, and so on.  In fact, kindness is very good for our physical and mental health, according to social science research.

Studies have linked kindness to various physical health benefits including;

  • improved immune response,
  • pain reduction,
  • improved cardiovascular measures,
  • improved energy and strength in elderly people,
  • longer lives.

These benefits were measured in research that looked at specific groups - eg people who volunteer were found to live longer, and elderly people who were involved in caring for others were less likely to die over the period that was studied.  I can be quite sceptical about research methodology even when the experimental design is regarded as robust.  But the research done in this area clearly points to ways in which kindness can be very powerful indeed. 

Benefits of kindness to emotional and psychological health include:

  • decreased negative emotions,
  • increased happiness and positive emotions,
  • reduced loneliness,
  • improved self-concept,
  • greater flexibility and tolerance,
  • increased attractiveness to others both as friends and as potential partners. 

And being kind means we are more likely to receive kindness.


Problems we might identify

There can be many problems about the way health issues are dealt with: 

  • we can be bamboozled by inadequate, conflicting or inaccurate information, and certainty that is not borne out by subsequent findings, 
  • there are health fads and fashions which range from well-founded to being unproven and/or unsafe,
  • systems of delivering health care can be inadequately resourced, or focused more on their needs than ours, or motivated by making money - sometimes exorbitant amounts,
  • the process of assessment and diagnosis can feel distancing, being treated as a disease rather than a person, ending up stigmatised, or diminished because of being unwell.
  • we are exposed to a lot of critical judgement about health - that people who have problems have been doing the wrong thing, that people are good or bad or undeserving depending on what their problems are.

Fortunately many people have good experiences with medical systems, and with kind and helpful treatment.  An important issue in this is whether the system itself has a culture of treating staff and patients fairly and kindly.  But a system that sells a fake remedy ("snake oil") is definitely not kind no matter how agreeable their manner.

There are problems about the way we learn to treat ourselves:

  • we have no control over what happens when we are small,
  • as children we are exposed to the "ordinary" hurts that arise just as part of growing up - and inevitably we learn about unkindness,
  • we learn quite early on what is expected of us and what we might expect from others,
  • what we experienced with some adults could have been caring and thoughtful but with others it could have been inconsistent, neglectful, unclear, harsh, unrealistic, rigid or abusive, 
  • it could be that there were people in our lives who were well meaning but just didn’t get us, so we felt misunderstood, not heard, lonely, a misfit or oddity, 
  • we might have had a lot of safety and loving, but nevertheless absorbed messages about what it was to be successful and respected that did not serve us well,
  • there may have been deliberate unkindness, or it may have been unintended - but most of us know all too well how it feels

These experiences and lessons can shape our future emotional states and reactions, our well being, our relationships, and the choices we make.

And there are problems arising from the societies we live in and the kind of environment that is created:

  • how people are treated,
  • the things that are valued, that are given priority,
  • how connected we are with the natural world, how it is treated.

That’s a selection of quite a few possible problems.  

Then what we make of unkindness and hurts depends on all kinds of factors.  
In the wider context it doesn’t matter how good our genes, family health and loving relationships all are - where we are born and live determines all kinds of things about our health and well being.  (Just think of the differences between being in Sweden or Syria)

No matter what our circumstances we can be resilient if we have the good luck to enjoy enough respect and affirmation in our relationships, and have access to information and ideas and resources that support us.  But there are many ways that we can be left with burdens that stop us from experiencing kindness and well being, especially kindness to ourselves.

  • we can be upset and angry about how we are treated and stew over it
  • we can be very hard on ourselves, sad and disappointed and angry with ourselves for what we regard as failings or fault
  • we can feel confused and find it hard to focus on how we treat ourselves because of all the stresses we are dealing with - and operating on auto-pilot can be functional but it is not particularly kind
  • we can feel locked into emotional distress and it doesn't feel possible to think anything kind about ourselves.

And kindness to ourselves can seem a foreign concept anyway - after all we are used to messages about getting on with life, not complaining, being “positive” no matter how we feel inside.  Often trying to do the things we think we “should” do just stresses our already stretched selves.  And often the messages of what we “should” do clash with what is possible, or clash with other things we “should” do.  

Remedial action

If our approach to our well being is done with kindness it changes the questions we ask and the way we think about finding well being.   We can drop expectations and work from what is, rather than what "should" be:

  • we can look at our lives as they are,
  • what we are doing,
  • our circumstances and vulnerabilities,
  • the pressures we face,
  • how we are treating ourselves
  • and how we think about ourselves,
  • with open curiosity and interest, without judgement.

That's a great beginning.

Getting started

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