I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the idea of “random acts of kindness”. There’s a tweeness and toothlessness to it: I immediately picture a man standing on a street corner holding a sign saying “free hugs”, or someone filming themselves giving unsolicited compliments to strangers. Is anything lasting or meaningful really achieved with such “kindness”? Aren’t they fleeting, hollow performances designed to make the giver feel good, rather than the receiver? Is being “kind” better than being respectful, or caring, or genuine? So I cringed a little at the title and opening minutes of The Kindness Experiment. “I’m trying to generate more kindness,” presenter Ella Scotland Waters tells a passer-by on the streets of Bristol, “by getting people to talk, think and act through kindness.” She even has flashcards, printed with suggestions of, yes, “random acts of kindness”.
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The series looks into the “science” of kindness and offers tips from a professor at Bristol who offers courses in happiness. But this podcast is more than an “experiment”. At its best, it’s a portrait of a close-knit community, which demonstrates the importance of forging meaningful relationships with people in your immediate vicinity. Scotland Waters introduces us to Ali, who runs the local corner shop in St Werburgh’s. “This little corner shop is a very, very happy place to come,” we hear an older woman, Margaret, beam in a thick Bristolian accent. “Ali, he talks to me like he’s my son. We’ve never, ever had a cross word. If I don’t have 20 pence enough, he says, ‘Go on, don’t worry about it.’ Some days, if I feel down, Ali says to me, ‘Come and sit behind the counter and talk to me for an hour.’ That’s how kind he is to me.”
Scotland Waters gets a few different people she meets in the corner shop to carry out acts of kindness. She encourages James, a construction worker who admitted to being rude to a woman outside the shop, to track her down and give her flowers. James makes amends with “Granny Eves” and leaves her house exclaiming, “What a sweet woman! How cute was that!” Often, the exchanges end with some version of, “I only live round the corner, so I’ll see you around.” I found myself sincerely hoping they do.
The Kindness Experiment
This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook