Opinion: The kindness of strangers
An act of human kindness carries a certain weight that few other deeds can. Professor Robin Banerjee asks what it means to be kind and why it matters?
Kindness features as one of the key values of our strategic plan Sussex 2025: A Better University for a Better World. The fact that our university community identified kindness as one of its uniting principles resonates with me, and illustrates the pioneering spirit that continues to endure at Sussex.
I arrived at Sussex as an undergraduate 30 years ago, fresh from an international school experience in Japan. Looking back, I’m struck by how experiences of kindness have marked my life at Sussex. I remember how quickly I was made to feel at home among a wonderfully diverse community of students and the enthusiastic response from staff who so generously shared their time and expertise.
Three decades on, it’s come full circle as I now lead the School of Psychology at Sussex, one of the largest communities for academic psychology in the UK. I’m proud to say that kindness sits at the heart of what we do, not just in the spirit of care and support for each other, but in cutting-edge research that transforms practice and policy across many sectors: from education, social care and health to transport and justice. My own specialist research interests have revolved around support for the social and emotional development of children and young people. I have also had the pleasure of leading the Sussex Kindness Research network, which brings scholars together from many disciplines to help us learn more about the nature of kindness and its impacts on people and communities.
Given the particular challenges faced by young people during the pandemic, efforts to foster kindness may be especially important now for supporting their positive relationships and wellbeing.”
Kindness may seem simple and intuitive, yet there are many complexities and nuances. What’s kind for one person might be deeply unfair to others. And what’s kind in the short term could be damaging in the longer term. On an international level, how people interpret and respond to a given ‘kind’ behaviour can vary dramatically across cultural groups.
Not surprisingly then, academic interest in the psychology of kindness has grown markedly over recent years. Given the particular challenges faced by young people during the pandemic, not least the multiple prolonged periods of lockdown and separation from peers, efforts to foster kindness may be especially important now for supporting their positive relationships and wellbeing.
It’s an exciting time for us at Sussex as we are at the forefront of this development having established a partnership focused on kindness with the Pears Foundation, a charitable trust that aims to demonstrate the good that philanthropy can achieve. Their generous support has enabled us to recruit a new academic lead to promote our work on the psychology of kindness.
Meanwhile, I’ve been leading the world’s largest ever public science project on kindness in collaboration with the BBC via the author and broadcaster, Claudia Hammond (Psychology 1990), our first Visiting Professor for the Public Understanding of Psychology. More than 60,000 people from all over the world have told us what kindness means to them, how it relates to their mental health and sense of wellbeing and how it fosters positive relationships at home, work and in their local communities.
So yes, kindness does matter. It’s right at the centre of what Sussex means to me and I’m excited and honoured to be able to lead research that recognises the power of kindness in our lives.
Professor Robin Banerjee
Professor Robin Banerjee is Head of the School of Psychology and Director of the CRESS (Children’s Relationships, Emotions, and Social Skills) research lab and the interdisciplinary Sussex Kindness Research network.