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The effects of kindness

Can a lawyer change his life by reading a short stack of self-help books in one week?

Couple sitting on a park bench outside

Can a jaded, cantankerous lawyer – aged just 38 – change his life by reading a short stack of self-help books in one week, all of them focused on the power of kindness? One man takes an honest look at the good, bad and unusual advice that the modern-day self-help book espouses.

The Power of Kindness

Review: I don’t believe in Karma. I don’t believe in God, but I do try to be kind. Who doesn’t? Most people, given the option of being the bad guy or the good guy, will go for option two. Why not? The Power of Kindness promised to open my eyes to a simple concept; Piero Ferrucci, psychologist, argues that being kind will not only lead to our own individual happiness, but will protect us from what he calls “global cooling”. This has something to do with the internet and general rampant communications taking the warmth out of human relations, leading to more violence, narcissism and funny cat videos.

Result: After wading through chapters about the care of others, communication and collaboration, the sense of belonging, and sharing empathy I read this sentence: “We may not know it, we may have forgotten it, but it’s true: We are already kind.” Should have said that earlier. Time waster.

The Kindness Handbook

Review: A practical companion in which “renowned meditation instructor” Sharon Salzberg offers ways to inspire true generosity of the spirit. Excellent. I’m a man of action who looks forward to flexing my forgotten goodness muscles. The title “handbook” made me envisage a “how to” approach, with diagrams and flow charts and chapter titles such as: “How to say something nice to someone who is getting on your nerves.”

Result: Unfortunately, I got a lot of Buddha-based advice such as “compassion is the quivering of the heart in response to pain or suffering” and “we are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality”. In a short space of time I was experiencing unkind thoughts so I swiftly moved on to escape the negative energy.

Random Acts of Kindness: 365 Ways to Make the World a Nicer Place

Review: This paperback by Danny Wallace is great and not just because it’s very small, with large print. In contrast to the irritatingly earnest approach of my previous missive, Wallace welcomes us to “Karmageddon”. His little book is full of advice such as “buy a six pack and give two away”, “give a monk a Mars Bar”, or “give a tramp a harmonica”. Call me a cynic, but it seems that being kind is akin to being either stoned or a friendly drunk and hey, I’m OK with that.

Result: Solid practical advice that will either help you make new friends, or get you into serious trouble. Does anyone really think that offering fellow travellers mints in the train is a good idea? Having said that, as advised by Mr Wallace, I popped a sugar cube next to an ant nest and enjoyed the warm glow that followed.

Mindsight

Review: This one’s by Dr Daniel J. Siegel. That’s right, Doctor. The celebrated psychotherapist promises to change the wiring of our brains with the “new science” of kindness. Dr Siegel presents real-life scenarios from his own patients, interspaced with his theories and science and, well, it’s really complicated. From what I can gather, the Doc uses modern day neurobiological research and ancient meditation practices to argue that we can literally “rewire” our brains, making ourselves and those around us more happy in the process.

Result: I’m not sure where kindness comes into it, but this book is interesting and worth reading for the patient stories alone. Be warned, you’ll need to concentrate. So, with four books down I’ve been irritated, interested and amused. I’ve learned that evolution has made me innately kind, that I don’t rate Buddha, that Karmageddon is fun and that Dr Siegel is clever, but what’s in it for me? Why should I be nicer?

The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness

Review: I was hoping this book by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval might have the answers I was looking for. Why be kind? For personal gain, of course! Thaler and Koval have a simple philosophy: it pays to be nice. The Power of Nice argues that “nice” companies have lower employee turnover, lower recruitment costs, and higher productivity.

Result: So what? It’s great advice if you’re already the boss, but these guys have some pretty solid advice for living in general. For example: “negative impressions are like germs”. They argue: “Just as positive actions are like seeds, rude gestures and remarks are like germs – you may not see the impact they have on you for a while, but they are there, silently infecting you and everyone around you.” Basically, this means if you treat people like crap, you’ll eventually find yourself being treated like excrement also. I think that’s probably true. Be nice or be poo, which sort of brings us full circle, doesn’t it? Being the good guy is better than being the bad guy, but you probably knew that already.

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