Over the past few years, Mary Portas has thought long and hard about the heady days when she was busy building her retail career. Her winning formula meant abiding by what she calls “alpha codes” in a predominately masculine culture which rewarded individualism rather than collaboration, and where she suppressed her more feminine attributes - kindness, compassion and vulnerability – in case they reminded her colleagues that she was fallible.

Of course, none of us is perfect, and acknowledging this, says Portas, gives us new freedom to put our true values at the heart of what we do: “When you sit with people and you can be completely yourself, isn’t that when you’re at your most powerful?”

Hard-wired to be kind

Actually, this shouldn’t come a surprise to anyone. Whoever said “we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give” had it about right. As humans, we’re hard-wired to be kind, to be supportive and sympathetic to the people around us. Darwin spotted the evolutionary advantage of communal support, and more recently we’ve understood that our bodies and brains power the supportive imperative too.

Recent research into the ‘helper’s high’ and the ‘giver’s glow’ shows that acting selflessly gives rise to feelings of elation and exhilaration, followed by a satisfying calm, just like the effects of tough physical exercise. And there are similar health effects too – the release of dopamine, followed by oxytocin is a hormonal cocktail which helps to boost our mood, lower blood pressure and protect the heart.

No-strings generosity

There are examples of no-strings generosity around the world and throughout history. The Haida Nation, located in southern, Alaska still practise a historic ‘potlatch’ or ‘give-away’ ceremony. The native American community takes this opportunity to come together to reaffirm family, clan and the relationship with the supernatural world. By giving away valued and valuable possessions they’re making a meaningful, heartfelt sacrifice. The act honours the item and its new owner and giving away something so important brings about a release and the possibility of personal growth in the future. 

"It's important to seek kindness as a thread that runs through our whole life."

We don’t have to take part in an elaborate ceremony to be kind. In our daily lives it’s about doing the small stuff well – and treating everyone, including ourselves with friendliness and generosity. Jaime Thurston, author of The Kindness Journal says: “I think it’s important to see kindness as a thread that runs through our whole life rather than little acts of kindness”.

When kindness is shared, it grows

Everyone responds well to kindness, and the complex web of positivity opens up to everyone around. Simply witnessing acts of kindness – however small – has similar health benefits, and encourages others to copy that behaviour. At a time when contagion is a dirty word, let’s celebrate our ability to pass kindness on.