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Story | Education
10 October 2020

Qf expert explains butterfly effect of kindness and its impact on mental health


Kindness is a virtue – and, according to Dr. Aicha Hind Rifai, when it is demonstrated to and shown by children, it influences the people they will become.

Image source: SewCream, via Shutterstock

On World Mental Health Day, a Weill Cornell Medicine – Qatar professor shares insights on the impact of kindness

A thank you to the waiter who brought your coffee, a wave to the gas station attendant who just filled your tank, or a smile to a stranger on the street are all simple acts of kindness that can have a tremendous impact on those around us.

These acts of kindness can have a butterfly effect – a theory that suggests small actions can have indirect implications in a larger scenario – a term often used to emphasize the significance of minute occurrences, like the fluttering of butterfly wings causing a typhoon.

Dr. Aicha Hind Rifai.

For children
Children and young people are among those who are most influenced by the daily actions of others. Dr. Aicha Hind Rifai, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine – Qatar, a Qatar Foundation partner university, explains: “Younger age groups tend to observe the people they value, or who are of great importance in their lives, the most – those they depend on, love, and respect.”

With parents being the central focus of their children, their actions speak much louder than their words. Instilling kindness and compassion in a child cannot simply be instructed, rather it has to be observed and learned – they have to see things from other people’s perspectives.

“This observation represents a huge part of the learning and development process,” says Dr. Rifai. “Learning comes from the imitation and replication of behaviors that we see around us.

Learning through observation is one of the main ways that young people develop, besides their biological makeup, and that's why it contributes very much to the people we become and to the behaviors we exhibit as grown-ups

Dr. Aicha Hind Rifai

“So learning through observation is one of the main ways that young people develop, besides their biological makeup, and that's why it contributes very much to the people we become and to the behaviors we exhibit as grown-ups.”

A number of studies have also revealed that learning empathy at a young age significantly contributes the prevention of bullying, and helps children build better, stronger, and more impactful relationships.

For ourselves
We are more than just what we eat – we are what we do, too, as our actions and behaviors reflect our values. Science has proven that kindness is the easiest and cheapest way to boost our serotonin levels, helping to keep anxiety at bay, and improve mental and physical health.

To foster strong, positive relationships, we need to maintain a certain level of interaction – it is how we cement a social structure to prevent loneliness

Dr. Aicha Hind Rifai

“We are social beings and research has shown that we thrive among other people, while solitude can have a negative impact on our health and our sense of wellbeing. To foster strong, positive relationships, we need to maintain a certain level of interaction – it is how we cement a social structure to prevent loneliness.

“It has also been shown that recognizing someone by their name, like the cashier at the supermarket, or the security guard in our building, and greeting them is a simple act of communication that can help prevent depression,” says Dr. Rifai.

According to a study conducted by Harvard Medical School - Harvard Study of Adult Development - which tracked the physical and mental health of a group of few hundreds sophomores over the course of 80 years, good relationships and friendships have a powerful influence on longevity and health, while loneliness and solitude have a negative impact.

We need to be mindful about others. We are all human beings, and we are all unequivocally the same, regardless of the work we do, the money we have, the items we own

Dr. Aicha Hind Rifai

For society
Unfortunately, inconsiderate behavior is equally as common. Actions such as throwing garbage out of a car window, knowing that someone else will pick it, may affect the main recipient of such an action as well as observers.

It is common for individuals working in the service industry to deal with uncomfortable situations, from being ignored, to handling rude and impatient customers, to receiving criticism from employers.

“I have seen throughout my work that those in the service industry are the most emotionally and psychologically vulnerable in society, as unfortunately they often have to respond to such behavior very passively,” explains Dr. Rifai.

Dr. Rifai says simply greeting someone by using their name “is a simple act of communication that can help prevent depression”. This image was taken before COVID-19 health guidelines were introduced. Image source: Dmytro Zinkevych, via Shutterstock

From a child’s perspective, Dr. Rifai emphasizes that any sort of human interaction where a person treats another without giving them the status of a fellow human being gives the impression that this other person is unequal. Our behavior towards others reflects how we perceive them.

“Such behavior trigger questions in children’s minds; they start asking the genuine nature of human equality – does this person deserve the same thing we deserve? And this message is learned, and then often repeated, by children.

“We need to be mindful about others. We are all human beings, and we are all unequivocally the same, regardless of the work we do, the money we have, the items we own. It is incredibly important to teach children this from a young age to help spread kindness.”

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