Especially in a pandemic, kindness can bring meaning to our lives, the lives of others and to the world.
In a year with Covid-19, social justice protests and a presidential election, cultivating deep kindness is a way of cutting through division and revealing our common humanity.
Here's why Kraft says developing this trait matters, what he's learned on the road and how you can practice kindness in your family or community.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CNN: What is kindness?
Houston Kraft: I like to define things by what they're not. I was at a school in Texas and this kid approached me and he said, "After listening to your assembly, I realized I'm a really nice person, but I don't think I'm very kind."
I asked, "What's the difference?"
He said, "Everyone at my school thinks that they're kind already. But I think they're just being nice, because being nice is a reaction. If you're nice to me I'll be nice back to you. If I like you, I'll be nice to you. The way you talked, kindness is proactive."
That distinction between nice versus kind is a profound one. Most of our world would say that they're kind, when they're actually just being nice. "Nice" doesn't require nearly as much of us. "Nice" happens when it's convenient, when it's comfortable. The sort of kindness we need right now requires a lot more listening, a lot more discipline, a lot more sacrifice and quite a bit of discomfort.
CNN: What about kindness interests you?
Kraft: I think I have looked at kindness a lot longer than the average person. I've been thinking about how to teach it to young people in order to actually create behavioral change, and that's where we're paying really close attention to something. Why is there the gap between what we say is good, and then, if we're honest, what we're actually good at? I'm obsessed with what's in that gap, because we all say kindness is really important, and yet we're not really good at practicing with each other.
What gets in the way? What prevents me from living a kinder life? The skills that we teach today are going to be the behaviors and culture of tomorrow.
CNN: You write about tossing around kindness like confetti. How does "tossing kindness" like confetti differ from deeper kindness?
Kraft: I think there is damage in quotes like throw "kindness around like confetti" or even the imperative "Just be kind." I hear so often from well-intentioned people that if kindness is free, why wouldn't we spread it? And my argument is no, kindness is not free. When we think about something that's free, we don't allocate resources or time or attention to that thing.
Deep kindness, I would say, costs us discipline over time to practice something day in and day out. That's especially when we don't feel like it because of the discomfort or courage that's going to show up in moments where our reputations are on the line.
CNN: Are kids growing up in a world that's more or less kind than your childhood?
Kraft: We are growing up in a world that is more anxious. Even if there's a desire for greater kindness, it hasn't worked in lots of schools. I see a greater sense of awareness, which is one of the gifts of our social media connectedness. That creates a sense of exposure. Young people have a natural deepened perspective of the world, they see and get access to a lot more information. But because of what's going on in our world, we're also increasing anxiety. Anxiety is one of the biggest barriers to empathy. No matter how kind I want to be when I'm stressed and anxious and fearful, I'm too stressed to actually act in kindness toward others.
Empathy, measured in a lot of different ways in the average college-age student, has dropped
40% since the year 2000. The belief is because of an increase in anxiety.
CNN: You spent most of your career teaching children. What have children taught you?
Kraft: One of my favorite moments was at a school in Washington State. I was speaking about compassion and kindness. At the end, there was some time for questions. This kid raised his hand and asks, "What if people don't want my kindness?"
We came to this conclusion that everyone wants kindness, as a human need to feel seen, but not everyone trusts who's offering the kindness. He said, "For me in my life, kindness has been a precursor to pain, of people who said they were going to be good to me. And then they broke that promise. I realized I've done that to a lot of people in my life, and it makes sense that people can't receive a thing they don't trust." I have to earn people's trust before they can receive my real kindness. No matter how much I want to give them generosity, if they don't trust me, they're not going to receive it.
Sometimes it takes three attempts to earn that trust with someone, and sometimes it takes three years to earn that trust. But if we genuinely care we don't take rejection personally. We take rejection as a sign that I need to work harder and earn your trust, before I can give the thing that I want to give you.
CNN: How do you start to practice kindness?
Kraft: If we say practice kindness for 30 days, it's so big and abstract that most of us get lost and distracted, overwhelmed or busy. We have to figure out who are we actually directing that kindness toward. I have most immediate access to myself, because I spend every day with myself. So maybe for the first day or two of a 30-day plan, the practice of kindness is simply for me. How do I fill that tank so I can give to others?
Who's next? I've got my family who I talk to every day. I know my mom just had a scan and got the news that she's four years cancer-free, which is great. So I'll call her today to celebrate that with her. As I move outward over the course of 30 days, I can expand my influence or my impact. The more specific that kindness is, the more meaningful it's going to be to the person.
CNN: If someone has 30 minutes today, what's one thing they can do to be more kind to themselves or others?
Kraft: My favorite practical exercise has to do with your to-do lists. Everyone is overwhelmed, and we know that sometimes kindness gets de-prioritized when we're overwhelmed. My challenge is to write out your to-do list, including everything you've got to get done. And above your to-do list, write the words "to-be list." Today, not only do I want to get this stuff done. If today I also want to be kind to be grateful, or to be present, let's say you have two or three items on your to-be list that you put physically above your to-do list.
Next to each one of those words, just give yourself a five-minute action that associates with each of them. If you have 30 minutes today, going through this practice might be something you can ingrain into your habits. We actually become the things we say in the value.
My call for us collectively as a culture is to have the courage to care even though the risks on the far side are scary. We need people who are willing to face that not fearlessly, but courageously, in order to heal a world desperate for more compassion.