The Science of Kindness!

Written by Gus Fordyce

In December 2017, a group of scientists ran an inaugural workshop in New Zealand with a central tenet – science is being held back by a culture of aggressive competition, an often singular focus on personal career success and an overall lack of kindness.

The ‘Kindness in Science’ movement could not have come at a better time for the coral reef research community. Still reeling from the wake of the third global coral bleaching event and continuing to weather derision from industrial and political opposition to marine conservation, emotional support is becoming ever more important.

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Fig. 1 Source: https://www.randomeactsofkindness.com

The almost constant barrage of bad news about coral reefs and their untimely demise is enough to permanently dampen anyone’s optimism; let alone the people who spend their careers studying them.

Successes are too often overwhelmed by a tide of discouraging predictions, observations, and case studies, all of which represent the new ‘norm’ – coral reefs are collapsing at unprecedented rates and we are barely keeping up. Just today, I was greeted by the uplifting news that Belize’s Barrier Reef Reserve System has been removed from UNESCO’s list of Endangered World Heritage Sites (link). Nine years after being added to the list due to unrelenting exploitation of the area’s resources, the world is congratulating the government of Belize for a powerful attitudinal shift.

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Fig. 2 The famous Blue Hole in the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System. Source: https://whc.unesco.org

However, as I continued to surf my Twitter feed, I was immediately confronted with a report predicting severe bleaching on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef every two years by 2034, another from UNESCO with a sobering vision of a world without coral reefs in 2100 and news of record high temperatures in the northern hemisphere. Such unrelenting bad news can lead to a despondency which eats away at your mental well-being.

For climate scientists, an acute understanding of the problem at hand, combined with cases of denial and hostility can make for a depressing professional life. For coral reef researchers, no doubt faced with the same wearisome combination, the last thing we need is hostility within our own ranks.

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Fig. 3 The sobering reality is that our beloved reefs may die out in our lifetime. Image sourced from geographical.co.uk

Unfortunately, competition as a guiding principle in the research community has quashed creativity, led to the duplication of efforts and created an unwelcoming atmosphere for burgeoning researchers. These intense levels of competition that are inherent to many fields, too often breed unkindness. And it seems like we are missing out.

Essentially, being kind makes us happy. Kind acts lead to higher levels of overall life satisfaction and mental well-being. They stimulate the production of serotonin and oxytocin, which reduce anxiety and boost optimism. These in turn, excite our vagus nerve which may have evolved precisely to promote altruistic and compassionate behaviour. This further incites more kindness, and on societal scales can lead to a “kindness contagion”, where happiness triggers greater creativity and openness to new information. Kindness makes us more inclusive, more positive and helps relieve the stress that is inherent in our profession. Of course, this is not new information per se. As well as making intuitive sense, the connections between kindness, happiness and openness have been supported by research throughout the 21st century.

Drawing upon these lessons can help bolster the community of coral reef researchers against the effects that endless doom and gloom can have on our mental health. It will surely drive us to collaborate rather than compete, to see the potential in new ideas as opposed to focusing on their flaws, and can only increase the accessibility of a field that would benefit from an influx of talent to help it keep up with the changing climate.

Being critical is essential in conducting science. But kindness is essential in being happy. Given the bleak outlook for coral reefs in the future, we could all benefit of treating each other kindly.

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