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Why Kindness Matters

Why Kindness Matters


According to positive psychology pioneers Martin Seligman and David Petersen in their book Character Strengths and Virtueskindness refers to “doing favors and good deeds for others; helping them; taking care of them.” Kindness can be broken into two main categories:

  1. Being kind
  2. Receiving kindness from others

Often we prioritize the being and focus less on the receiving. Let’s break both apart. What constitutes a true act of kindness? “Acts of kindness focus on promoting positive outcomes for others rather than for oneself.”according to researchers Trew and Alden.

Biologically humans needed social instincts like kindness to:

  • Enhance group cohesion and bonding
  • Help us act as caregivers
  • Keep us safe from other tribes
  • Increase our experience of Positive Emotions
  • Relax our facial expressions (we smile more, our faces soften)
  • Neural firing pathways (begin thinking down the same lines)
  • Heart rhythm (heart rates slow and begin to match each other)


According to Dacher Keltner in his book Born to Be Good. Kindness enables us to work together as a tribe. It’s innate. Yet just because something is innate doesn’t mean we always do it. ​Kindness can be both caught and taught. It involves nature AND nurture.  ​

So while we may initially experience intrinsic motivation to do something, it still requires environmental supports.  Most children begin to hear about kindness as one of their first lessons in a school setting. Kindness includes manners, fairness, generosity, turn-taking and words of praise or gratitude.


Neuroscientist Jamil Jaki from Stanford has developed a ten-week experiment “Becoming Kinder” exploring generosity, goodwill, and empathy. Designed as an empathy gym with ‘kindness challenges like

  • Reverse the golden rule
  • Spend Kindly
  • Disagree better
  • Kind Tech
  • Be a Culture Builder

that are specifically designed to encourage individuals to step out of their comfort zones in the name of being kind.

Another common kindess practice is a random act of kindness.  According to the Greater Good Science Center there is actually an optimal dosage for random acts of kindess-  5 acts of kindness in one day.

One of the benefits of kindness according to psychologist John Gottman who has been researching couples in his “Love Lab” at the University of Washington for over 4 decades is better relationships. His obsession involves understanding what factors predict a successful relationship. Over decades he has interviewed hundreds of newlyweds with one goal, to see them argue. When Gottman observes a couple argue he can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples will stay together and be happy, stay together unhappily or split up.  What it comes down to is kindness and generosity. “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger, but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger.”

Being kind to yourself, self-compassion, is also incredibly important to wellbeing, People who treat themselves kindly feel more empathic concern, they are more altruistic, they feel more connected to the world around them and they feeling more socially connected (especially in the teen years).

The Giving

Kindness can be as simple as a smile and using someone’s name in conversation. When you make eye contact and use people’s names you elicit oxytocin production. This small act of kindness increases wellbeing.

Kindness can also be a grand gesture like the ones told on the podcast Kind World such as carrying a baby for a sibling or crossing the border multiple times a week to deliver water, food, and lessons to children seeking asylum.

Try these simple ways to activate kindness:

  • Listen
  • Smile
  • Use someone’s name
  • Hold a door for someone
  • Pick up litter
  • Let someone into your lane while driving
  • Pay for the order behind you in the drive-thru
  • Take a neighbor’s garbage bins to and from the curb
  • Compliment someone
  • Clean up after yourself
  • Send a “thinking of you” text
  • Remind someone of a positive shared past experience
  • Include someone new on a social outing
  • Let someone who wants to help you, help
  • Don’t offer advice unless asked
  • Share silence with someone
  • Engage in random acts of kindness
  • Engage in kind acts that are not random at all



The Receiving

If you are like most people, you probably find it easier to be kind than to be on the receiving act of a kind act. Indications that this is true include deflecting compliments or not accepting gratitude. Sometimes receiving kindness and compassion can feel threatening, as though the one being kind is somehow superior. If you notice you have trouble receiving gifts, compliments, or acts of generosity and love, spend some time reflecting on why. Who taught you to behave this way or modeled this behavior? Many people have adopted this learned behavior as a way of being humble. If someone gives you a compliment, not receiving it stops its power for both the giver and the receiver.


*originally written for the Institute of Positive Education



Top Five Aha Moments from the World Positive Psychology Conference (WPPC2019)

Top Five Aha Moments from the World Positive Psychology Conference (WPPC2019)

I recently spent 4 days with Positive Psychology practitioners from around the world sharing new research and applications from our field. Almost 1600 from around the globe flocked to Melbourne to converse and connect. Each day was informative in new ways and there were many opportunities to cement and integrate current applications to our Positive Education model. My top 5 takeways include:

1. There is a happiness microbiome

Professor John Cryan taught us all a new word, psychobiotic. Cryan’s research looks at targeting gut health through individualized microbiomes. Cryan reminded us that the brain/gut connection is not new research, in fact  Hippocrates’ believed that ‘all disease begins in the gut’. His talk touched on  prebiotics and fecal transplants and I am excited to see what will come next from his labs. His reminder to us all “Mind your microbes”.


2. There are multiple happiness genes

Meike Bartels delivered a jam packed talk that showed the progression of the search for the genetic components of happiness. The good news, although there is definately a genetic component to happiness, you control your genes. They do not determine your happiness. A large-scale international study of over 298,000 people,  isolated the parts of the human genome that could explain the differences in how humans experience happiness. First there were 3 specific genomes identified, then 300 and Meike shared her belief that we will eventually discover thousands. The big idea- heritability does not limit chance of happiness. There is most likely a genetic predisposition to be more or less happier. The environment impacts this. Ultimately our genes will influence what types of interventions and practices are most effective- a one-size-fits-all approach just won’t work.

3. Positive technology shows that not all tech is bad.


Lyle Unger from UPenn gave a fabulous talk about technology that supports happiness. In this age of stress and anxiety there is a lot of commentary about the impact of technology on mental health. I have always been a believer that technology is just a magnifier of an individual- it can boost or deplete wellbeing depending on what app and how you use it. Unger’s work supported my belief. The session also reminded us to be cautious in our interpretation of data. Perhaps the individual drawn to apps that deplete wellbeing are already languishing when they start using the app. We cannot blame technology. Personally, I use Insight Timer and listen to Podcasts daily. I loved this talk because it was based on what is right with technology (similar to our strengths-based way of working in  Positive Education)

4. The research won’t help without business support.

Gabriella Rosen-Kellerman chaired a session on industry partnerships in the behavioral sciences. I wasn’t sure what it would be about but when I saw the panel that included Martin Seligman, Roy Baumeister and Sonja Lyubomirsky, I knew I was in for a treat. Gabriella represents BetterUp, a fabulous tech group out of San Fran who combining the latest advances in scientific research with  digital technologies transforming people and workplaces. Gabriella reminded us that research means nothing without application. BetterUp is set to invest $15-20 million in its lab over the next five years because they know people are a company’s biggest investment. And if the lab can provide the evidence-based practices that can help people flourish, the return might be mind-boggling. I am hopeful to see an app for educators in the near future!

5. The second wave is cresting.

Michael Steger, Tim Lomas, Ryan Niemiec, and, Itai Ivtzan shared their thoughts on the second wave of Positive Psychology.– whose focus is more holistic – encompassing both hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing. We were reminded that a fish is only as healthy as the water it swims in. The context and system both matter in wellbeing.  The panel hilighted the importance of increasing the level of nuance and perspective to further our understanding of human flourishing.

Why Is It So Hard to Be Nice To Yourself? The Science of Self-Compassion in the Classroom and in Life

Why Is It So Hard to Be Nice To Yourself? The Science of Self-Compassion in the Classroom and in Life

Teachers often come to self-compassion work looking to help their students to be a little easier on themselves. It might be a seed planted after a crisis like a suicide or when they hear (once again) the nauseating stats around teen depression, anxiety, and debilitating levels of stress. (1 in 4) Parents and educators alike want to help kids to feel less compulsion around getting straight A-s, getting into an Ivey, or graduating at the top of their class. Social media isn’t to blame and yet when a maturing person with an under-developed pre-frontal cortex (decision-making part of the brain) is tasked with homework, volunteer work, sport, music, and a navigating the complexity of social life, it’s easy to see how anyone can get caught up in behaviours that range from self-deprecating to self-sabotaging.

What is Self-Compassion

The science of self-compassion is new. Most of the research is less than 15 years old. Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer are the reigning experts and their site SelfCompassion.org offers a wealth of resources. Eighty percent of us are more kind to others than we are to ourselves. 80%!  Self-compassion happens when you treat yourself in a way that is:

  • Kind
  • Gentle
  • Forgiving
  • Open-hearted

Self-compassion feels expanding and it provides you with permission to be imperfect, or perfectly imperfect as I like to say.

Why Be Self-Compassionate?

People often see their lack of self-compassion as motivating. They also mistake self-compassion for self-indulgence. Self-compassion has even been labeled as weak. I like to remind adults that modeling self-compassion is really the only sure-fire way to show the younger people in your life how to treat themselves. Telling you child or a student not to be so hard on themselves rings untrue and inauthentic is we aren’t living self-compassionately first.

What Does Self-Compassion Look Like?

Mindfulness versus over-identification. This refers to an individual’s ability to recognize something without catastrophizing. In the case of a student, one C in biology can send them on a downward spiral where they now won’t get in to University and now the rest of their life is ruined because all they have ever wanted to do is practice medicine. Seeing the C as one mark on one test rather than an indicator of potential or latent ability is self-compassion.

Common humanity versus isolation. We are all in this together. We all experience some successes and some failures. We all feel sad or angry at times. When an experience connects rather than disconnects you, you are being self-compassionate.

Self-kindness versus self-judgment. When you make mistakes and use a growth mindset to see them as part of the process rather than proof that you are somehow inadequate you are offering yourself kindness.  Our youth need reminders that part of being human and growing up is learning to do hard things.

How Self-Compassionate Are You?

If you are curious about how your own self-compassion rates, take this online assessment.

If you need to improve your self-compassion, know that you are not alone! There are many simple ways to get better at treating yourself with respect.

  • Talk to yourself like a self-compassionate person would. “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. Let me be kind to myself in this moment”
  • There are a variety of guided meditations that follow a loving kindness philososphy. I love these ones on Chris Germer’s site.
  • Using Soothing Touch. Our bodies are wired to release compassion inducing chemicals like

oxytocin when we feel skin to skin contact. Hold your own hand. Give yourself a gentle brow, cheek, and chin massage. O r give yourself a hug. These all release opiates that help regulate moods.

Self-Compassion is good for you.

People who are self-compassionate are also more motivated, more proactive and less likely to procrastinate. They are more compassionate to others and they are more able to cope with life’s difficult moments.

What is the Difference Between Kindness and Self-Compassion?

They sound an awful lot alike however compassion prompts action which leads to elevating the suffering.

One More Reason (this one isn’t about you)

Research on mirror neurons has shown that we have something called empathic resonance. This means the sadness we feel on behalf of someone else is not less than our personal sadness. The reverse is also true. The emotions you are experiencing are contagious to those around you. You might be unintentionally spreading your emotional heaviness to your family, your friends and your colleagues. In the words of author Jack Kornfield

“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete”


Want To Get Hired? Lead With Emotional Intelligence

Want To Get Hired? Lead With Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EI) is popping up everywhere- from Facebook to LinkedIn there’s more and more buzz about why EI is the new IQ. Emotional intelligence includes your ability to recognize what emotion you are feeling and to manage that emotion in a way that allows you to use the emotion rather than becoming overwhelmed by it. It also includes your ability to accurately interpret and respond appropriately to the emotions of other people. It is involved in your capacity for resilience, motivation, empathy, reasoning, stress management, communication, and your ability to read and navigate sticky social situations. Understanding the strengths of your own Emotional Intelligence and being able to convey these strengths on a CV, resume, college application or in an interview will help you in achieving your goals.

Once thought of as part of the soft skills of employment, leaders are now recognizing that hiring enthusiastic employees who have a growth mindset and high emotional intelligence matters. It’s easier to provide training for the so-called hard skills that to help someone increase their EI.

Daniel Goleman, author of What Makes a Leader, suggests working these types of questions into any interview process:

Self-awareness Question

“Tell us about a time that one of your weaknesses had a negative impact on your work team’s performance.”

Self-regulation Question

“Tell us about a situation in which you became frustrated in a professional setting and you were able to redirect these feelings in a positive manner.”

Social Skills Question

“Describe a situation involving your work team where you were able to manage conflict

within the group to help them move forward.”

Empathy Question

“Share an actual situation that happened at work that showcases your ability to consider

other people’s feelings in your decision making.”

Motivation Question

“Is there a work-related situation you can tell us about where you put a lot of energy and

effort into an important project that went unnoticed or unrecognized by others?”

Good candidates arrive ready to answer questions like these, great candidates address the areas of motivation, empathy, self-awareness, self-regulation and social skills right in the application or on their CV.

Selling Yourself Means Knowing Yourself


If you are interested in emotions, learning about them will satisfy your curiosity. If you depend upon emotional knowledge in your job, learning more about emotions would likely help.

John Mayer

Taking time to learn more about your unique strengths might mean reading Strengths 2.0 and taking the Clifton Strengths Finder assessment.

It could also mean understanding your values in action through a free VIA Character Strength Assessment.

Check out this list of assessment tools I love.

Once you have a list of words that describe you in, pick the ones that feel like a vital part of who you are and incorporate them into how you describe yourself. Weave them into your CV or cover letter or use them in interview answers. When you know yourself and can speak confidently about both your areas of strength and the areas where you could grow, you show yourself to have Emotional Intelligence. If you think you need a little help increasing your EI this blog post has some great exercises. Or check out the fabulous Ramona Hacker’s TED talk.

Becoming more aware of emotional intelligence has no downside. When you increase your self-awareness you level-up your ability to interact with people in a way that allows you to get more of what you want. Make yourself impossible to ignore!

“No doubt emotional intelligence is more rare than book smarts, but my experience says it is actually more important in the making of a leader. You just can’t ignore it.”

Jack Welch



The Science of Flow- Why Getting “In the Zone” Matters

The Science of Flow- Why Getting “In the Zone” Matters

This week an amazing group of professionals gathered at Claremont Graduate College for the Western Positive Psychology Association’s conference delving into Evidence-Based Applications in Positive Psychology. I was lucky to present 2 sessions.

 10 Years of Positive Education discussed the top 10 mistakes my team at the Institute of Positive Education sees as they reflect on our decade of delivering positive education and what successes ensued once we learned from our mistakes (a little growth mindset modelling). In Is Wellbeing Enough? I led a discussion about measurement of wellbeing and its role in organizational psychology (because what gets measured matters!). Presenting to such an engaged group of Positive Psychology experts certainly had me feeling in the flow which was another focus of the day- recognizing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – “Father of Flow” and Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management who will be retiring at the end of the 2018-2019 academic year.  Mike shared his story beginning with reflections on how his family’s displacement post WW2 led to a serendipitous meeting of Carl Jung where the seeds of his passion for psychology were planted. He also touched on his hope and perspectives for the Future of Positive Psychology. This post will delve into the science of flow and why it impacts wellbeing.

According to Csikszentmihalyi there are 8 states of engagement. We know that engaged living is a predictor of wellbeing, life satisfaction, and enjoyment at school or work.

A flow experience has nine characteristics:

  1. What you are doing balances challenge with skill level. Like Goldilocks, the task cannot be too hard or too simple- there is a sweet spot of difficult but not too difficult that encourages flow and is just right.
  2. The task allows for some level of direct and immediate feedback- when walking a balance beam your feedback is either falling off, staying on, or almost falling and then recovering. The feedback is part of the process.
  3. There is a clear goal.
  4. Action and awareness of action are merging. You are able to participate and reflect on your participation almost simultaneously.
  5. You are absorbed in the task. There is engagement and there is not distraction.
  6. You have a sense of personal control. You are impacting the outcome with your effort in a palpable way.
  7. Your lose any self-consciousness. You are not thinking about how others respond to what you are doing, you are just doing.
  8. Time seems to either stand still or pass quickly. There is a warped sense of noticing the passage of time in a positive way.
  9. The task itself is intrinsically rewarding. You aren’t there for the medal or gold star, you are there because the activity that gets you to the medal is important.


When people talk about flow state, they often use terms like “in the zone”, “total absorption”, “feeling at one” or “peak performance”. As  Csikszentmihalyi said in his book Finding Flow.

” Contrary to what we usually believe, the best movements in our lives are not the passive, receptive relaxing times…The best moments usually occur is a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is this something we make happen.”


What happens to Your Brain  When You Are In a Flow State?

  1. Transient hypofrontality– the focused thinking part of our brain gets a rest and other parts and functions of our brain to become more predominant (like creativity)
  2. Dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex quiets– This is the part of your brain that deals with executive functions such as impulse control
  3. Medial pre-frontal cortex becomes highly active
  4. The neurochemistry of flow floods your body with performance enhancing chemicals like dopamine, noradrenaline, endorphins, serotonin allowing for amplified learning, motivation, and creativity.

Often thought of as a solitary experience, we now know that flow can be experienced together. In fact the flow experience is quite contagious- when we see flow happening on the soccer pitch or at a musical performance, we get a bit of the beneficial chemicals for ourselves.

Interestingly. even though most people would might prefer leisure to work, people experience flow 54% while working compared to 18% at play according to one of Csikszentmihalyi’s studies.

Want More Flow?

  • Minimize distractions
  • Seek feedback on your performance
  • Have clear goals
  • Find the sweet spot of challenge and skill
  • Reflect on when and where you feel flow most
  • Give yourself time- rushing is a flow-blocker

I’m compiling a list of activities that seem most connected to flow. Send me yours and I will add it:

dance     tennis     swimming     horseback riding     drawing     singing     tennis    playing an instrument     public speaking     juggling




Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books.

Dietrich, A. (2003). Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis. Consciousness and cognition12(2), 231-256.

The First Step to Happier Habits

The First Step to Happier Habits

When scientists discuss wellbeing they look at the domains of PERMA as discussed by Martin Seligman and add H for physical health.

Knowing what is needed to create optimal health and wellbeing is one thing but actually forming the habits of regularly doing what you need to do to thrive is an entirely different skillset. This article is going to take a look at the science of habit formation with the goals of helping you to gain mastery over the tools to be happier by implementing strong habits of mental health.

Habits can be changed if you understand how they work. When you combine the science of habit formation with positive psychology interventions and practices you get:

  • more happiness
  • more positive emotion
  • more wellbeing
  • less rumination
  • less negative emotion

Habit formation is a function of neurology. It happens in the brain and is reflected through all the systems of your body.  In science the patterns of habit look like this:

In yoga traditions dating back thousands of years, we see the same pattern with different words:

Samkara is a memory, conscious or unconscious. Sometimes the memory is at the genetic level. The samskara is in the causal body which is also sometimes called the subtle body where the essence of the individual is enlivened.

Another way of thinking of this is:

Any time you want to change a habit the key is to replace an old belief with a new one. This happens right before the action/karma/routine phase.


One way to do this is through willpower. Contrary to what many people believe, willpower is not an asset but a learnable skill. It’s true that it can feel depleted over the course of the day. This can be largely due to fatigue, hunger, thirst or even limiting beliefs about yourself and your ability to resist temptation.

When I think about forming habits I like to draw on advice from the experts. These strategies are super helpful and there are lots to choose from:

  1. Pairing. Attache something you want to do to something you already do. Keep the vitamins you always forget beside your toothbrush. Allow yourself to binge-watch Netflix when you are on the treadmill.
  2. Reward. The classic star chart. Keep a chart. When you have 30 gold stars get a reward. Ensure the reward aligns with your goal (ie Don’t reward 30 days of running with an ice cream, instead choose a reword of new running pants or a fitbit)
  3. Streak. This refers to making a chain of days in a row. If you use Insight Timer to time your meditations it will show you your number of uninterrupted days. When you have 99 in a row it’s motivating to not have to start over.
  4. Unpairing. Sometimes you will only exhibit an undesired behavior in a certain context. For example may people only smoke when they are drinking. If you decide that you can do one or the other but not both together you have successfully unpaired the habit.
  5. Accountability. Get help. Find some friends who will help keep you accountable. When my husband decided he wanted to work out every day, I would text him a photo of me at the gym, in yoga, or hiking. This took advantage of his competitive nature and got him hooked so he could respond to my texts with one of his own.
  6. Stick. Sometimes the carrot just doesn’t work  If rewards aren’t your thing try a crazy punishment. If you are a republican pledge to donate $500 to the democrats if you don’t stick to your diet. This negative reinforcement tied to how you define yourself can be very successful!

Changing habits begins with a belief in the possibility of change. If you need more motivation to get started, try these great books.