“Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.” –Lao Tzu
Write a ten-page paper defining mental health. That was the assignment given on day one of class by one of my favorite professors in graduate school. He specified that we were not to define mental illness or to define mental health as the absence of mental illness. He really wanted us to spend some time thinking and researching in order to come up with our own understanding: what does it really mean to be mentally healthy?
It has been more than a decade since I spent 10 pages exploring that definition, and yet when I was told that this month’s issue of Student Health 101 would correspond with World Kindness Day I immediately began thinking about how much kindness impacts mental health. I frequently give presentations and provide trainings on mental health, and I like to ask people what it would look like to be perfectly mentally healthy. To be perfectly physically healthy might mean that I always get the ideal amount of sleep, I eat a perfectly clean and balanced diet, I exercise exactly enough but not too much, etc. What would the mental health list look like? The ability to handle frustrating situations without losing patience? Always thinking carefully and balancing opposing viewpoints before sharing my opinions? Exercising empathy when communicating with others? Accepting setbacks and finding meaning in difficult challenges? There are too many worldviews and philosophical perspectives to come up with the right questions, much less to answer them definitively. But my perspective, after spending 20 years working in the mental health field, is that kindness is absolutely central to mental health — kindness toward both ourselves and toward others.
The quote above by Lao Tzu can be applied to treating ourselves kindly and treating others kindly. What words do I use in my own private self-talk? Do I find that I am my own harshest critic, or that I am my own greatest cheerleader? Studies in neurolinguistic programming demonstrate that the words we use literally shape and ultimately create our reality. What would happen if I used gentler language with myself? If I added the magic word “yet” whenever I noted my shortcomings? Instead of “I can’t do calculus,” “I can’t do calculus, yet.” Instead of “I’m so impatient,” “I’m not very patient, yet.” Those three letters change the entire meaning of the message and demonstrate how kindness in words creates confidence.
The examples of shortcomings of kindness in thinking today are plentiful. I can’t emphasize sufficiently the powerful effect on our mental health that can come from kindness in thinking. It is sad but true that through cruelty and divisiveness, we find a connection with others who share our own views. But this has a profoundly negative impact on our mental health. If instead, we practice kindness in our thinking by seeking to understand those who disagree with us, to have empathy for those who insult us and to exercise patience with those who will not do the same, we do indeed create profoundness in the place of otherwise banal or superficial arguments.
I hope we can all choose to give kindness. I am certain that doing so will create love. I am certain that those who engage in simple exercises to be kind with themselves and kind with others will see an increase in their own mental health. I’m still not sure what “perfectly mentally healthy” might look like, but I know that kindness will move us closer to that ideal.