Empathy movements a counterpoint to recent rioting

Good News

For a nation recently engulfed in violent riots, the timing couldn't be better.

Action for Happiness, a non-profit group that bills itself as a "mass movement for a happier society," launched this spring in London. Their aim is to encourage "hugging, meditation and random acts of kindness" throughout the U.K. and beyond.

In Singapore, an organization called the World Kindness Movement currently counts 20 countries among its members.

Back home in Canada, a similar movement is spreading its own benevolent wings. In fact, you may have already seen the signs. People For Good urges Canadians to smile at a stranger or give up a seat on the subway through billboard ads across the country.

These empathy-based movements pose a hopeful counterbalance to the images of rootless destruction, rioting and violence seen around the globe. Rather than point the finger at government, or simply lament the loss of social values, these groups are encouraging individuals to foster positive change by taking charge of their own behaviour.

"There needs to be some sort of social revolution that will enable us to reverse certain trajectories of our society," says People For Good co-founder Mark Sherman. "There are people in distress and rioting, lack of compassion for one another. What you're seeing on the streets of London is all part of it."

Sherman was inspired to act while attending a conference that urged companies like his to take on greater social responsibility. So, that's exactly what he did.

Along with partner Zak Mroueh of Toronto-based creative agency Zulu Alpha Kilo, Sherman designed an advertising and social media campaign that encourages small daily acts of empathy, compassion and kindness.

"Renew someone's faith in mankind. Smile at them," reads one of their billboards posted across urban subway stations. On their official website, readers can peruse through a list of ways to spread a little good cheer.

So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

"Everybody that I have contact with on the subject tells me that in some small way it has changed their behavior," says Sherman. "For me it's changed the way I interact with people when I go into a store, a cashier. It's changed the way I react to people who ask me for money on the street. I don't think I've become a saint because of it, but I think it's changed me and I hope it changes everybody just a little bit."

While kindness marketing campaigns may seem like a peculiar function of the 21st century, York University psychology professor Myriam Mongrain says these social movements have always been around in some form.

"There's a greater social awareness and connection among like-minded people, so these things can seem like a new movement emerging, but this whole idea of kindness and altruism and being compassionate toward others has been with us forever. All religious traditions, Eastern or Western, there's a strong emphasis of doing good unto others," she says.

Historical examples of altruism, such as individuals hiding Jewish families from the Nazis during World War II at their own peril, are as much a part of the narrative as stories of human atrocity.

Even amid the recent chaos in London, tales of altruism emerged, whether it involved locals banding together to help an 89-year-old barber rebuild his shop, or neighbours protecting other people's property from vandalism.

"This kind of behavior is critical for our survival as an entire species at this point," says Mongrain, whose research focuses on human kindness. "We're all going down unless something stronger binds us together."

So while the human instinct for compassion may be nothing new, the difference now is that technology allows for these sentiments to go viral.  By turning to social media, movements like People For Good can keep their message going indefinitely.

The campaign has its detractors. A few lengthy diatribes have questioned the movement's "real" motivation, and take issue with "being told" how to be a good person.

These are charges Sherman has considered at length.

"We did discuss on a number of occasions, who are we to tell people how to behave?" he admits. "And I guess what we came back to is that we do that all day long, so why not try to do that in a socially responsible way? So if somebody takes offense to the suggestion that you should give up your seat to somebody on the subway, let them be offended by that."

It's hard to disagree when you put it like that.

(Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters)