“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

Maybe you consider yourself a kind and caring person but feel like you lack the confidence, time or resources to make a difference in a person’s life. You don’t have to be philanthropic to make a difference. It doesn’t require much time or money to hold a door open for a stranger, help an elderly neighbor with a household chore, or simply tell a friend or family member how much you appreciate and love them. If you’re a parent, teacher, coach or business leader, you’ll be surprised by how acts of kindness, or showing “unconditional positive regard”, goes a long way in making you and your recipients feel good.

Photograph of Tom and Mom

Cousin Tom with my Mom at their favorite restaurant, Shadowbrook, in Capitola, CA.

My cousin Tom exemplifies the kind and caring person we should all aspire to be. He recently flew in from his home in Chicago to visit his California siblings, but also went out of his way to visit my 85-year-old mom who has dementia. He took her out to lunch at a favorite restaurant and shared photos on his social media site of them happily together, enjoying each other’s company. I called my mom to let her know of the affectionate post and images from Tom. She couldn’t remember the photo op or what she had for lunch, but she remembered the affection and love my cousin expressed to her during his visit.

Studies show that we underestimate how acts of kindness and love can impact not only our own health, but the emotional well-being of others. When we show compassion towards others, it not only boosts our overall health and improves our relationships, but also enhances the well-being of the recipients. A recent study shows that “givers tend to focus on the object they’re providing or action they’re performing, while receivers instead concentrate on the feelings of warmth the act of kindness has conjured up.” In other words, givers believe that receivers are only concerned with the gift or act itself, and not how it made them feel. Underestimating the positive emotions of the recipient can prevent the giver from being more compassionate towards others.

The Benefits of Unconditional Positive Regard

When people realize that their small actions of kindness can have a larger societal impact, they might choose to be nicer and more compassionate towards others, no matter who the recipient is. Humanist psychologist Carl Rogers emphasized the importance of “unconditional positive regard”, which basically means being empathetic towards others regardless of who they are and what they say or do.

Two people talking while sitting on a sofa

Researchers have found that giving and receiving unconditional positive regard can benefit us throughout our lifetime. Education researchers suggest that students who receive unconditional positive regard from their teachers are more motivated to succeed. Young athletes who received unconditional positive regard from their coaches were more motivated, had more confidence during their training, and performed better at athletic events. In the workplace, employers and managers who practiced unconditional positive regard enjoyed much better levels of productivity and lower levels of turnover from staff.

“Good leaders build relationships based on trust, support, compassion, open communication and acceptance”, which in turn builds a happy, confident and motivated person. On the contrary, if you lead by fear, intimidation and being highly critical, people will feel less secure, less motivated, and more likely not to perform at their best. They’re also more likely to drop out of school or quit their job. I’m sure most of us have experienced these unpleasant relationships with our teachers, coaches or bosses at some point in our lives. I certainly have, and to this day it’s influenced how I relate to people.

During most of my week, I’m coaching people with musculoskeletal issues and cognitive impairment, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. I’ve observed how these diseases progress and affect the memory of participants, similar to what my mom is experiencing. But what doesn’t change are human emotions and feelings of connectedness. That’s why I end all my classes and one-on-one training sessions with appreciation for participants’ attendance and a high five for putting in the effort.

Everyone struggles with some form of adversity in their life that usually goes unnoticed. The pandemic certainly challenged us in ways that we could never have imagined. However, it could be more common difficulties that life will present us, such as job insecurity or job loss, divorce or separation, caring for a disabled child or sick loved one, battling an addiction, struggling with depression or anxiety, or dealing with a chronic disease or neurological disorder. In most cases, people go through their day-to-day life never receiving a kind gesture like a pat on the back, a high five, or kudos for a job well done. I try to be cognizant of this in my line of work.

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” – Late actor and comedian Robin Williams 

When I called my mom shortly after Tom’s visit, she didn’t recall much about their time together, but she didn’t forget how Tom made her feel. She told me Tom hugged her and repeatedly said that she was her favorite aunt and that he loved her very much. Alzheimer’s may take away your memory but not the ability to love or to feel loved. Thanks, cousin Tom, for reminding us that simple acts of kindness are not just good for our well-being, but go a long way in making others feel good and the world a better place.