“Kindness is about human connections”

University of Sussex
This Sussex Life
Published in
4 min readNov 13, 2019

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For World Kindness Day on 13 November Professor Robin Banerjee, Head of the School of Psychology and of the Sussex Kindness Research network, reflects on what’s at the core of kindness.

Professor Robin Banerjee

We are not the only ones to be thinking and talking about kindness. Many organisations, and even national governments, are now asking important questions about kindness in everyday life. It’s been interesting for me to be doing work in Scotland with the Carnegie UK Trust and in the context of public services generally, to explore the place of kindness in education and mental health, and even in urban planning and procurement.

Kindness isn’t just about individual acts of kindness. It’s also about creating a culture where we can come together with different perspectives, recognise and celebrate those differences, and share and exchange ideas in a respectful and kind way.

I like the focus because I think it’s intuitively appealing. We all know what it feels like when someone is genuinely kind to us and we can probably all remember situations where someone did something that appeared kind but had an ulterior motive. I think we are pretty good at spotting authenticity.

It’s all too easy to treat words like “dignity” and ”respect” and, even the University’ s core values [kindness, integrity, inclusion, collaboration, courage] as superficial rhetoric. But it’s all about basic decency and how we conduct ourselves with other people. When we come together with different perspectives, good things can happen. I believe that’s what Sussex is really all about and is probably what attracted me to study here in the first place.

I was 16 when I came to Sussex. I had been through an international school system and, when I was very young I was moved up a grade, and then a year later I was moved up another grade. I was very good at reading, but maybe there was more to it than that. Anyway, after completing high school, I remember that arriving at Sussex as a young undergraduate was a really exciting time.

As a prospective undergraduate, Oxford had also offered me a place, but I turned it down because I preferred Sussex’s interdisciplinary perspective on the social world. I was in the old school of SOCS (Social Sciences) and social psychology at Sussex already had a strong reputation. But I remember coming for a campus visit and loving it. My dad had been to Sussex in the 1960s for one year as part of this PhD and he had also loved it. That must have chimed with me.

I had the pleasure of being taught by Nicola Yuill, who is still here in our School as one of our fantastic professors. I really enjoyed one of her modules on social development and I ended up doing an eight-week research project the following summer on children’s understanding of the social world. That experience gave me insights and interests that have stayed with me throughout my career: how young children think, feel and behave in the context of their social relationships. I’m now the director of CRESS (Children’s Relationships, Emotions and Social Skills) Lab here at Sussex.

There is good evidence that the mental health of children and young people is on the decline. Where I feel there is still some distance to go is in how we respond to that. It’s not just about saying ‘here’s a group of people experiencing difficulties so let’s find a way of fixing that group’. It’s about understanding, responding to, and supporting their complex network of relationships — with their families, their schools, their communities, the health service and how they all interact with each other.

That’s why I think a relationships perspective is so important in mental health, in social work, in education, in legal systems, and elsewhere. It is about recognising the relational world that we all inhabit and working with that. It’s about coming together and looking at problems in different ways. No one should be expecting silver bullet solutions to those problems, but the process of bringing different perspectives together in a kind and collegial way, with a shared commitment to learning, is so powerful.

Once you spend a lot of time at Sussex you do get that it’s special. I still see that, after nearly 30 years of being here. It’s not just its location and the beautiful campus. Sussex has an intangible quality that, for all my love of reading, I find hard to put into words.

Interview by Jacqui Bealing

This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series.

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University of Sussex
This Sussex Life

The University of Sussex was the first of the new wave of UK universities founded in the 1960s and we now have world-leading research across all our schools.