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When kindness may only be part of the story

Jenny Gu, Naoko Hashimoto and Ingeborg Hasselgren are the winners of the inaugural Kindness UK Doctoral Conference Award at the University of Sussex

The timing could not be better. In the wake of an aggressive and bitter battle for the White House, a University of Sussex symposium on kindness - a “first” in an academic setting -  seems a welcome antidote.

Gathered in the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts on campus are academics, students and  visitors who have come to hear presentations by three Sussex PhD candidates on very different aspects of kindness - from how to measure and define compassion, to how far “cuteness” equates with kindness, to whether it’s self-interest, or genuine generosity, that leads governments to welcome asylum seekers.

They are the winners of the inaugural Kindness UK Doctoral Conference Award jointly funded by Kindness UK, a not-for-profit organisation founded by David Jamilly, whose mission it is to raise awareness of the need for kindness and compassion.

While events are taking place this week to mark World Kindness Day on 13 November, David, whose philanthropy was highlighted in the Channel Four series Secret Millionaire, points out that engaging academics to take the subject to their hearts is an exciting new development.

“From our point of view it’s vital that kindness and compassion are integrated into society,” he says. “We already know that kindness is associated with health and wellbeing and that it has a positive impact on the chemistry of the brain.

“Now, by engaging academia, we hope to elevate the cause and to show governments and politicians the positive effects it can have on the planet.”

The Sussex award was launched by the University’s Doctoral School last year following an initial project started by Psychology PhD researcher Jess Cotney, who is looking at kindness and well-being in adolescence.

Although the study of kindness may fall more naturally in the realm of psychology, the award was open to students across all the disciplines, with the intention “to illuminate kindness and its effects on people and communities”.

And the winning entries could not have been more diverse.

The global refugee regime, and how far countries are acting altruistically – out of kindness – in accepting refugees through resettlement, is the focus of Naoko Hashimoto's research.

A PhD candidate in Politics in the school of Law, Policy and Sociology, Naoko previously worked for UN Agencies in helping to resettle refugees to Japan. Despite receiving thousands of asylum applications annually, Japan grants refugee status to no more than a dozen people, while proactively accepting Myanmar refugees through resettlement from camps in Thailand and Malaysia.

“It was puzzling me why Japan, which has such a strict asylum policy for those who spontaneously reach Japan, voluntarily decided to proactively admit refugees who have yet to reach Japan.” she says. “But when I began looking into it I could see an emerging trend where many governments have preferred accepting refugees through the resettlement route rather than the asylum route because they can select who they accept before arrival and control the whole procedure.”

In assessing different refugee policies around the globe, Naoko has hypothesised that kindness is only one of the logics that motivate governments to resettle refugees.  Self-interest, reciprocity and international reputation are also among key factors, she believes.

“Being kind and having self-interest are not mutually exclusive when it comes to refugee policies,” she says.

Meanwhile, Ingeborg Hasselgren, a doctoral student in the School of Media, Film and Music, turned her attention to queer-feminist activists in Sweden and how they employ “a cute aesthetic” in order to invoke solidarity and create “kind” spaces away from heterosexist, capitalist culture.

In a presentation that includes pictures of butterflies, unicorns and kittens – creatures that are deemed both cute and kind, she describes how these communities in Sweden hold events (such as communal karaokes “when everyone screams together”) that are framed in a way that deliberately excludes any machismo element.

She says: "The activists mainly use cuteness to create a safe space away from mainstream society which can often be toxic for women, queers and people of colour. However, the aggressive energy associated with cuteness,  also inspires the activists to fight back against oppressors like macho-men and riot police."

The final presentation, by Psychology doctoral student Jenny Gu, addresses how to define and measure kindness’s close cousin, compassion.

While kindness is often defined as an action, such as making a cup of tea for someone, or remembering their birthday, compassion is more narrowly focused on responses to suffering and emotionally connecting with someone.

“There’s a lot of talk about the importance of compassion in healthcare,” says Jenny. “It’s listed as one of the NHS‘s six core values.Yet there isn’t a consensus on what we mean by it and how we can measure it.”

Together with her research team, which included NHS workers, she began reviewing definitions of compassion and identified five key elements that could be used to create a multifaceted measure.

These are: recognising suffering, understanding the universality of suffering (we all experience some sort of suffering), emotionally connecting with the person suffering, tolerating our uncomfortable feelings in response to the person suffering (such as fear or disgust) and finally, acting to help alleviate suffering.

While the project is still under development – including addressing whether self-compassion, which is part of the Buddhist rhetoric, falls within this definition – she hopes that the measure will illuminate our understanding of compassion and how it can be cultivated.

In paying tribute to the students, to Professor Robin Banerjee, who organised the symposium with Jess Cotney, and to Dr Markus Paulus of Ludwig-Maximilan University in Munich, who gave a presentation on the development of sharing behaviour in early childhood, David Jamilly said: “I hope this will set an example for other universities across the world to look at this as a subject of research.

“These students have demonstrated incredible creativity in seeing behind the subject and finding its relevance in their own fields. Their projects are lateral and forward-thinking.”

*Kindness UK Symposium took place on 10 November 2016 at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, University of Sussex.

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By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Wednesday, 16 November 2016