Impact of a kindness challenge

As a IO psychology masters students cohort at UC, we had a lecture about respect and civility at work and as part of our ‘homework’ we had to choose one a kindness challenge to implement over a week. We then wrote about what we liked about the challenge and what we didn’t, if we found the challenge easy or difficult and thirdly, if we would engage with the challenge in the future and if so how and why.  

More about the challenges

The writer of The War for Kindness, Jamil Zaki talks about empathy being “less like a fixed trait, and more like a skill, which we can work on and build—the same way you’d strengthen a muscle”.  

To help us to push ourselves and connect better, he developed a series of challenges to practice kindness which he refers to as the ‘empathy gym’ which helps put into practice what can be learned through his book.    

Summary of the five challenges from The War Of Kindness website:

  • Challenge 1: Reverse The Golden Rule – The golden rule demands that we treat others the way we’d like to be treated
  • Challenge 2: Spend Kindly – People feel happier and less stressed and after acting generously, as opposed to selfishly.  Giving away time even makes people feel they have more of it.
  • Challenge 3: Disagree Better – Try to cultivate, and display, curiosity about someone who disagrees with you, rather than judging them immediately. Start asserting your respective positions.  But then, instead of debating your views, tell each other the story of how you came to have them in the first place.  
  • Challenge 4: Kindtech – Be intentional about how you use your time online.  Instead of seeking approval or shaming others, find someone you haven’t interacted with in a while and send them a message, or find someone who’s struggling and voice your support.
  • Challenge 5: Be A Culture Builder – Use the power of social norms for good, reinforcing or challenging others’ behaviour.  If you see someone acting kindly or empathically, recognize and reward that.  If you see someone acting cruelly or indifferently, challenge them.

Here is some of the feedback that was shared amongst the cohort members:

There were a few who chose to spend kindly and some who chose to reverse the golden rule.

Spending kindly through generosity, one student commented: 

“I really enjoy giving to others, whether it be a simple coffee or putting in time to show appreciation for them somehow. So I especially enjoyed doing the baking because I knew it would be nice for them while they were stuck at home.”

Another’s challenge on spending kindly though a quick phone call:

 “Everyone is always busy…though looking from someone else’s point of view, you giving them a call, may only have taken five minutes, but the impact can be huge.”

Taking time from your day to spend kindly on someone else, another student commented:

“Everything we do is life passing and I want to be as mindful as I can. Today I challenged myself to spend time kindly on my children and let them take their time; we stopping on the way home from school to look at some newly hatched chickens in a shop window…I liked to watch my kids enjoy themselves and it was very nice to not hear myself pushing them along”

Reversing the golden rule, we thought this comment a student who holds themselves to high standards, powered through getting assignments done while having Covid-19, shared how they could be nicer to themselves during this time

“So I have chosen to listen to the advice that I would give others (and that others have already given me!), I will take this weekend off and do a very small amount of work, and rest up and be nicer to myself about taking the time I need to get better.”

Two other areas students focused on were Kindtech and Disagree Better. Interestingly no one selected being a Culture Builder; perhaps as this challenge is a little more abstract, especially compared to the most popular challenge, Spend Kindly, which is comparatively easier to implement in daily life. 

One person who selected Kindtech found that being more mindful of her time helped her with her connections, and intended to continue reaching out to people.

“Consciously thinking about what I can do when I pick up my phone (texting a friend whom I have not spoken to in a week or so or sharing a positive message) rather than scrolling feels like a much better use of time, and it ensures keeping a connection. Time well spent makes me feel good, but I also feel good about the fact that I reached out. This is something I would like to continue to do, even though it may not be daily, I know it will mean heaps to those hearing from me.”

The other person who selected Kindetech decided to delete their Facebook and other similar social media sites as the constant negativity was impacting their mental health. Instead, they started following positive Instagram pages. They had extremely positive results, reconnecting with friends, feeling calmer, and even improving their eating as a result of seeing lots of food prep ideas.

“Such a small change in my use of tech has had a really positive impact on me.  I feel calmer. I still check in on the news but I’m just doing it once a day and I have to use my browser to log in to sites so it becomes more intentional.  I have used the time I would normally have wasted on doom scrolling to check in on friends and that feels so good.  I am definitely going to try and continue with this.”

Only one person selected Disagree Better; they chose this to improve communication in their life. It appears to have worked, as well as having the unintended (yet beneficial) side effect of helping them to better understand their own views on things. They said that they would continue to 

“Looking at challenge three specifically [Disagree Better], I found that the moment I read it I thought of cases in the past where it could have been implemented, as well as all the times in the future I can utilise it . . . on some topics it was an unfamiliar way to think about and elaborate why I think a certain way and what caused that; though I believe it actually made my point stronger and helped people understand it much more clearly than if I had of just argued with them about statistics and my opinion.”

Overall, out of the 11 students who tried this challenge, six selected Spend Kindly, three selected Reverse the Golden Rule, two selected Kindtech, and one selected Disagree Better (one student selected two challenges). Seven people reported (unprompted) positive affect as a result of doing the challenge, and all found it to be valuable or beneficial to them in some way.

Because of this, we would recommend that workplaces consider these exercises to increase the wellbeing of their employees. It is a simple, inexpensive challenge which requires little active time. Additionally, the students discussing the results of their chosen challenges with each other seemed to be beneficial for team building.