Killing (your demons) with kindness

A recent study has found evidence to suggest that performing acts of kindness can reduce the degree to which people with social anxiety avoid situations they might find anxiety-provoking.

This finding resonated with me quite strongly because I gave blood for the second time recently, and remarked on the same day that I felt more positive towards other people. I felt more optimism in relation to other people’s intentions and actions, and was more talkative with other people at the centre and later that day.

Historically, I experienced significant social anxiety. I gradually worked to reduce this in a similar way to the way I reduced my fear of injections – I exposed myself to it. The most radical part of this, which I instigated semi-unconsciously, and might be more aptly labelled flooding, was to go to Japan on the JET Programme as an English teacher. I remember the moment when I received the acceptance call from JET which meant that the thing I had hoped to do for so long became a real prospect. I was excited, but I soon realised I was also fearful: the job would entail a lot of public speaking!

On arrival in Japan, my first professional order of business was to speak at assembly at my base school to all the staff and students in Japanese, of which I could not speak a word. The gulf between this and where I believed my capabilities to lie was comically large, and perhaps it was the very preposterous nature of it that allowed me to work with my colleagues to cobble some words together, and do it. Maybe a presentation to a smaller group would have been more difficult. Perhaps the fact that it was not in English also helped: if I messed up the speech, I wouldn’t know! I imagine that the fact that at that point I really did not know anyone around me might have helped too: the situation provided a perfect laboratory to try new ways of being, and as such gave me lots of chances to face and overcome my fears.

The residue of my social anxiety remains: I am aware of feeling it, but I know I can push through it and things will tend to be okay. My experience with feeling better the other day paradoxically reminded me of the historic anxiety, but it was good to have first-hand experience that meant I could really believe the findings of Trew and Alden’s study.

Trew and Alden’s findings remind me of an article exploring the Benjamin Franklin Effect, which suggests the best way to garner good feelings from others is to ask them for a favour. This links with the behavioural aspects of cognitive-behavioural therapy, which can seem counterintuitive, such as when people are asked to engage in activities before they feel motivated to do so, which can lead to the development of motivation to engage in the activities, perpetuating a virtuous cycle which can boost mood. Essentially, behaviour leads to one’s construction of reality, just as thoughts and words contribute to construct it.

It has often been suggested that there is no such thing as a selfless act: that when we do things for others, ultimately we are also serving our own needs. Indeed, my blood donations have a partly selfish motivation: they allow me to expose myself to my fear of needles. Trew and Alden’s findings about kindness also support the idea of selfish underlying motivations, even if they might not be conscious. It may or may not be the case, but if it ultimately reinforces our doing good things for others, then perhaps it is just a natural reward for doing the right thing. Of course, the right thing to one person might not be so to someone else, but it is hopeful to think that there might be a system built into the human psyche that guides us towards and rewards us for being kind.