Lessons in kindness
Not long after best-selling American author and college professor George Saunders delivered a speech to the 2013 graduates at New York's Syracuse University, his message went viral across the globe. His topic – the simple, yet immeasurably powerful, act of kindness – struck a chord. Newspaper columnists and bloggers seized on it, and friends meeting in coffee shops are still talking about it.
In his speech, Saunders revealed his biggest regret in life – which wasn't the times he's been short of money, the awful jobs he's had or embarrassing scenarios from his youth.
No, his biggest, and only real, regret was not being kind to a seventh grade classmate at school, a new girl who was bullied and ignored, before her family suddenly moved away.
Though he didn't actively bully the girl, neither did he attempt to be nice to her.
"Why, 42 years later, am I still thinking about it?" Saunders asked. "What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness."
His message was that if failure to be kind can cause such regret, it's a reminder of the importance of being kind.
Saunders says it's become easier – and something he's placed greater emphasis on achieving – with age. But his advice to graduates was to speed up, to be kind today.
When we're venturing into the world, there's so much emphasis on chasing status and success that along the way it can be easy to neglect the "important" things. Saunders said: "Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness."
So why have his words had such an impact?
Why, in today's "me, me, me" technology, celebrity and social media-driven world, where so much of what we do is motivated by vanity and an unquenchable urge for public validation, might we be hankering for more simple kindness?
"Saunders' speech sounds like an innocent tale of schooldays, but the reason it's really struck a chord is because it highlights the significance of kindness both in our day-to-day lives and in the classroom," says primary school teacher Harriet Collins.
"While kindness isn't tested formally in schools, it should, most definitely, be the glue that bonds not only formal lessons together, but forms a vital part of the ethos which underpins all aspects of school life and learning."
Of course, promoting kindness in schools could significantly reduce bullying. But it's important on smaller scales too.
Society often seems to reward materialistic ambition and success, while being "nice" is often portrayed as a weakness (as anyone who watches The Apprentice will know). But look back at the times in your life when somebody, whether a friend, relative, colleague, nurse or stranger, was kind to you. How valuable were those actions and the difference they made in transforming a bad experience into something meaningful and encouraging?
"Even the smallest act of kindness should never be underestimated," she says. "It's these acts that, when pieced together, allow children to grow and develop into adults who are self-aware, empathetic, happy and self-motivated: qualities which are no sign of weakness, but crucial to future successes in all aspects of life."
She believes that teaching today places great emphasis on collaborative working; whether children are supported to share their ideas with a partner or negotiate and compromise in group tasks.
That's not to say children aren't encouraged to challenge and develop their own opinions, she adds, but rather the emphasis is on establishing a safe and secure environment where young learners are mindful of each other and not afraid to contribute to the lesson for fear of being laughed at.
The great thing about kindness is that it doesn't have to focus on "big things" – it's more a frame of mind.
That's not to say we can't have personal goals and enjoy material rewards and luxuries. But the harmony and glow that kindness can bring, and the positive way it connects us to others, is what makes us feel really good.