Our capacity for kindness is our most precious human asset, yet we don’t always value it as we should. We may sometimes brush it aside in favour of more ego-driven impulses: unbridled ambition, for instance, or ruthless competitiveness or acquisitiveness, or rampant individualism. But when kindness prevails, we flourish!
If we are born to connect, to co-operate and to show kindness towards each other, then here’s a remarkable thing about our society: the social trends that have been reshaping us over the past 30 or 40 years have been pushing us in the opposite direction. Far from becoming more socially cohesive, we have actually been becoming more socially fragmented. Far from becoming more conscious of our interdependence and interconnectedness, we have become more defiant about our sense of independence, our individual differences and our uniqueness.
A quick reminder of some of those trends:
- the fastest-growing household type is the single-person household, and our households are shrinking to the point where more than 25 percent of Australian households now contain only one person. Not all solo householders are lonely or socially isolated, of course, but the risk of increased social isolation is heightened by this trend;
- between 35 and 40 percent of contemporary marriages will end in divorce, with socially disruptive consequences for the couples, their families and social circles;
- the falling birth rate means the ‘social lubricant’ effect of kids in a neighbourhood is in shorter supply than ever: relative to total population, we are currently producing our smallest-ever generation of children (often preferring pets to children – there are currently 25 million humans and 28 million pets in Australia);
- we’re more mobile than ever, moving house on average once every six years, and more mobile in another sense, too: with almost universal car ownership, there’s been a dramatic reduction in suburban footpath traffic that encourages incidental neighbourly encounters;
- we’re busier than ever, having elevated busyness to the status of a social virtue – though busyness is the great enemy of social cohesion;
- the information technology revolution has had a paradoxical effect – making us more ‘connected’ than ever before, but also making it easier for us to stay apart, and to sacrifice too much face-to-face time in favour of screen time (‘connected but lonely’ is a phenomenon now observable in heavy users of social media).
Even that short list is enough to alert us to the cumulative effect of such trends: more fragmentation, less cohesion, more social isolation. And because we belong to a social species, these trends are producing the predictable effect: the rise of the Me Culture (exemplified in our current obsession with ‘identity’) and the three epidemics that inevitably follow the atomisation of a society: loneliness, anxiety, depression.