In Conversation with Hugh Mackay Part Two
We were lucky enough to take some time to sit down with Hugh Mackay, social psychologist, author, and social researcher of over 60 years, to discuss kindness in our world today.
The average Aussie says they perform 16 acts of kindness per week but receive only six. Why do you think there might be a gap?
This is the important point about kindness, that it is so natural for us, it’s not something that needs to be celebrated or acknowledged, it’s not something that you clap and cheer about when you see someone perform a kind act, when someone stands up in a bus to give their seat to an elderly person or stands back to let someone else go into the lift first. Simple little things like moving to one side of the pavement so we aren’t being too close to each other because we’re practicing physical distancing.
All of these things just come naturally. For humans to be behaving kindly, that’s like saying humans are breathing, we don’t really notice we are breathing and I think a lot of the acts of kindness are just absolutely natural for us so we don’t even realise we are doing it and we don’t necessarily notice other people are doing it either.
Of course there are times when someone fails to perform an act of kindness and we might notice that. We notice if someone pushes in front of us in a queue or to get into a lift, we certainly notice that. What we tend not to notice is when humans are behaving like humans.
How can Australians be kinder?
There are two things we can do to encourage our own adoption of kindness as our default position to permanently draw on our innate capacity for kindness.
One is simply to remind ourselves that that is what it means to be fully human, that we are being less than true to our human nature when we withhold kindness.
The second one, the most significant thing any of us can do to increase our kindness quotient is to sharpen up our listening skills, to listen to each other more attentively, more empathically because when we listen to someone, that is in a way the most potent act of kindness we can perform. We are responding to that other person’s need to be heard, and the need to be heard, the need to be noticed and acknowledged and responded to is one of the deepest of all human needs.
Listening says ‘I’m taking you seriously, I am acknowledging your need to be heard’. Of course if we don’t listen, if we only half listen, we are saying ‘sorry I don’t take you seriously enough to bother listening to you’, and who would ever want to say that.
The first discipline to adopt in order to harness our capacity for kindness more fully is to become better listeners.
Do people need to be more open to receiving kindness?
There is no doubt that some people, because of their own ego and desire to be independent, strong and capable, will sometimes rebuff offers of kindness. If someone stands up and offers you a seat they might say ‘no, no, no I’m fine’, it would be much nicer to respond to that act of kindness because it is so well meant.
We do need to be more conscious of the offers of kindness around us and to be more open to allowing people to be kind to us. In the same way as we are sometimes inhibited from being kind because of our ego driven concerns of how this will look, so it is the ego that gets in the way of receiving acts of kindness.
The breakthrough is when we realise that in fact although at one level we are independent people with our own sense of identity, we are different from everyone else, we are all unique. The much deeper truth about us is that we are interdependent, that we all exist in a kind of shimmering, vibrating web of interconnectedness and interdependency. Once we acknowledge that, that’s an expression of our common humanity. Once we acknowledge that, then why would we ever resist an act of kindness that someone is reaching out to us with fellow human feeling.
Why do you think it’s important that brands like Helga’s are encouraging more kindness?
One of the loveliest things to emerge, perhaps as a result of the pandemic or people realizing that in many Western societies we have been moving in the direction of becoming more socially fragmented, individualistic and competitive, is taking us away from the core values of our human nature.
I think it is wonderful that organisations and brands like Helga’s, and some others around the world, at this moment in our social evolution have decided that they’d like to put their weight behind the push for more kindness, for being true to our kind human nature.
I strongly applaud, I have been privileged, to play a minor consulting role as Helga’s began thinking about this. I think it is wonderful that a brand like Helga’s has decided they are going to not just put some advertising muscle behind the push to encourage acts of kindness but also to have conceived of this wonderful idea of trying to create a national kindness index just to see over the next few years how we are travelling in the direction of kindness.
We need all the encouragement we can get. When people used to go to church more often they would hear sermons encouraging kindness and compassion and so on. Most people don’t go near a church anymore but I think it’s wonderful that some commercial brands, like Helga’s, are stepping up and saying ‘we’ll take the responsibility of encouraging kindness in our community’. That is another way, apart from selling people a product that’s good for them, we can help to make the world a better place.
Do you think Australians will be kinder in the future?
Kindness waxes and wanes according to the situation we’re going through. The worst possible situation from the point of kindness is when we’re having an economic boom and when we’re responding to the encouragement we get from so many quarters to look after ourselves. The so-called ‘me culture’ that has evolved in Australia and around the Western world in the last 25-30 years, where we are obsessed with our own happiness, our own comfort, our own wellbeing, at the expense of other people.
We need correctives, and the pandemic and the bushfires have been very important correctives for us. I am hoping that we are going to learn the lessons from this pandemic, as previous generations have learned lessons from wars or depressions or other pandemics, and hang on to these lessons, it would be tragic if we let them go.
I hope I am not foolishly optimistic, but I am hoping the lessons we have learnt from the pandemic are going to stick and we are going to look gradually at a quiet revolution in Australian culture where more and more of us commit ourselves to being kind as our default position, recognizing that our common humanity is far more important than our independent identity and to live accordingly.
It won’t be plain sailing, it won’t be a graph that goes ever upwards, but I am encouraged to think that we have learnt some important lessons in the last 12 months. These are reinforced by messages like Helga’s new advertising campaign and we’ll be reminded that this is the best way to live. So why live any other way?
Want to know more about kindness?
We have commissioned McCrindle to create a report on the current state of kindness in Australia and give us a score that we’re calling The Kindness Index. You can enter your details below to get access to the full report, or we’ve together a Kindness Hub with all the info you need and we’ve collected some community stories and how-to guides in our Kindness Chronicles.