Mainstream media exposure can cause anxiety, stress, and depression fairly quickly.  It seemed to me that this was not congruent with the view that most people are good and kind…My interest was how to rebalance this view and allow people to flourish.

Here in our feature “Grateful Changemakers”, we celebrate programs and projects that serve as beacons of gratefulness. These efforts elevate the values of grateful living and illuminate their potential to transform both individuals and communities. Join us in appreciating the inspiring and catalyzing contribution these Changemakers offer to shaping a more grateful world.

Envision Kindness

Jesse and David Fryburg

Envision Kindness is harnessing the power of visual media to inspire kindness. Through media campaigns in schools and healthcare facilities to international photo contests with submissions from 80 countries, the organization aims to make kindness tangible, measurable, and most of all, more visible. Using strategies rooted in the humanities and behavioral and biological sciences, Envision Kindness plans to bring the healing potential of kindness and its components – gratefulness, compassion, altruism, joy, and love – to places where healing is needed most, like hospitals and other healthcare settings.

Envision Kindness was founded by a father and son team who believe that kindness is not an abstract concept or lofty ideal—it is something we are all capable of practicing, worthy of receiving, and using mindfully to positively impact the world. It is a key element to achieving a higher quality of life for everyone. Co-founder and President David Fryburg, MD (the dad) tells us more about how their work is amplifying the presence of kindness in a way that supports the values of grateful living.

What sparked the Envision Kindness project? Why the emphasis on kindness?

It started back in 2011 after I realized how depressed I was reading the news.  Once that became clear, I did more research that confirmed my personal experience: Mainstream media exposure can cause anxiety, stress, and depression fairly quickly.  It seemed to me that this was not congruent with the view that most people are good and kind, and I became concerned that the media’s drive for attention through fear would disconnect people from one another and lower the quality of life. My interest was how to rebalance this view and allow people to flourish.

Kindness seemed the natural opposite to greed, violence, neglect, and disdain.

Kindness seemed the natural opposite to greed, violence, neglect, and disdain. To me, it embraces a large number of related concepts like gratefulness, compassion, empathy, brotherly love, peace, forgiveness, “doing the right thing,” and acting with integrity.  It isn’t that kindness is superior to one term or the other – it is the outgrowth of many of the above ways of being, and it is visible in many circumstances. It is about the realization that we are connected to one another.

After exploring multiple options and looking at the good work that so many other organizations are doing, we launched Envision Kindness in 2014. Our focus on using still and video photography enables us to quickly reach people and to depend less on language so as to bypass its limitations. As this approach was unique, with no precedent for us to follow, we have built programs for crowd-sourcing these images from around the world. These programs are framed as contests and have successfully created very moving still and video images. We are now building better ways of sharing them.

How do you see kindness as being connected to grateful living?

Kindness and grateful living are linked concepts as part of a virtuous cycle. I see being grateful as a state of appreciation for all that one has received or experienced. In turn, the grateful person is now connected to something or someone outside him or herself. That connection is so important for being happy and fulfilled: This is what Aristotle called eudaimonia. Feeling happy, fulfilled, and connected then allows that person to be more kind, compassionate, and empathetic. And so the virtuous cycle continues from there. Kindness begets gratitude, which creates connection, which raises the spirit and allows for organic joy, goodwill, and more kindness to become manifest.

What’s important about focusing on spreading images of kindness?

The notion of trying to promote kindness through images is a combined response to how the brain works, how the digital age wants faster delivery of information, and how we can transcend the limitations of language so that someone in Morocco, in the U.S., and in China can get most of the same meaning from an image and not be limited by the sole use of language. I have loved photography since I was six years old, so I decided that images would be our vehicle.  

An important feature of the human brain (and many mammals) is the ability to read body language, especially facial expressions. The process of integration and interpretation has been shown to be fairly uniform across cultures, that is, interpretation of joy, sadness, and anger are largely independent of culture. In addition, the brain is programmed to respond to the visual transmission of emotion and to recognize kindness. So a single image can communicate a lot of meaning very quickly. This is a corollary of the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” We explore these and other concepts in our Kindness Lab.  

What inspires you personally about this work? How does your professional background as a doctor influence the scope and vision of the project?

My major goal is to help people live a better quality of life. There is far too much rancor and polarization in the world, the majority of which is generated by a small number of people. The vast majority of people simply want to live a fulfilling, peaceful, happy, and meaningful life. One path to that is through kindness. It connects people. Makes one another feel valued and have meaning. And kindness to the self is a huge aspect of this. A solid, organic happiness is achievable through these connections.  

While an individual needs to “be fit” to survive, survival of a species depends on altruism: Members of the group must be willing to sacrifice for one another.

What strengthened my convictions about this pursuit, beyond the simple idea that it would be good to promote kindness, is that people who are kind appear to live longer and in better health.  The best data come from epidemiologic observations of volunteers. In these survey studies, people who volunteer regularly have 20-40 percent lower chance of dying than those who do not. This is the equivalent of clean water or vaccinations against major diseases. And while these are complicated studies, they tie together with other evidence that experiencing kindness, particularly as the giver, causes biologic changes, too. Finally, Darwin and other scientists like E.O. Wilson, pointed out that altruism is critical for a species to survive. That is, while an individual needs to “be fit” to survive, survival of a species depends on altruism: Members of the group must be willing to sacrifice for one another. Observing this in multiple species (even ants) supports the idea that altruism is the default mode of living organisms. We lose some of it as we are impacted by life’s experiences. And since we tend to remember the negative experiences more strongly than the positive ones, people can become disconnected from what their true nature is.

When I realized the biologic implications for human health, I also realized this is why I went to medical school: to help people live a better quality of life. If it is possible for people to be kinder to one another (and themselves), collaborate, and compromise more, the world could be a much happier and healthier place.

How do you inspire participation in your visual media campaigns?

One channel of promotion is sharing image-based stories with as many people as possible through social media and through a newsletter we are starting. Beyond social media and the newsletter, more images can be seen on our website.  And finally, we will be delivering these images directly to inspire people in different settings. We are starting in healthcare facilities.

The challenge is that genuine, diverse, and inspiring images of kindness don’t really exist in one place. To deal with that, we crowd-sourced them through programs framed as photography contests. Last year’s contest, entitled “Our World Is Kind,” yielded over 1,500 images from more than 600 photographers in over 80 countries. That added a lot of high quality, wonderful images that we can now share with others. Due to the success of that contest, we are about to launch this year’s version. There is no fee to enter, and cash prizes are awarded. Most importantly, people can be proud that their images – and the images they vote for – will inspire others to be more kind (and in turn, experience more gratefulness).

How do the visual campaigns inspire tangible kindness and gratefulness?

Lots of responses from participants in our programs give us insight into this. Our photography contests focused initially on schools. During the first contest, one high school had the entire student body (about 850 students) go out onto the football field to spell “BE KIND,” like a marching band. When I saw that, I thought it was really cool. It raised a question for us: What happened when those students went back into the school? We surveyed teachers and students who participated in the contest from all of the schools. Below is a sampling of responses.

“It was a moving experience to see an entire school body work as one team to promote kindness. There was a ripple effect through the community that continues to be felt. One student decided to organize a collection of coloring books for cancer patients of all ages; another organized a ‘thirst project’ initiative to help bring clean drinking water to less developed countries. And on a much smaller scale, we see students saying hello, holding doors for each other, passing compliments around, and generally acting nicer. I surmise that Envision Kindness has shifted our focus. We’re actively looking for good in others.”  

“I have always been a fan of school spirit and have lately felt that kids do not care about school spirit. This project renewed that faith. I saw a tremendous amount of school spirit from students, staff, faculty and even parents. What a wonderful way to engage them all with a wonderful message.”

“Participating in this contest allowed me to look at the world through a lens of compassion and grace.”

Here are a few testimonials from participants in our most recent international photography contest when asked how they felt after photographing kindness:

“It made me meditate in many ways to share kindness with others and the importance of promoting positive change.”

“It filled my soul with happiness.”

“It always makes me happy to share empathy with the world.”

“Simply fantastic. Really beautiful.”

How does Envision Kindness plan to grow?

We are using our growing portfolio to create unique, inspirational presentations that will be shown in specific settings. The first setting we are entering is healthcare facilities–to inspire both providers (doctors, nurses, aides, clerks–everyone who works there) as well as patients.     

The potential is large, I believe. It is about helping the viewer of the images heal emotionally through the sense of connection and awe about the positive qualities of life and being human.

My view of the physician’s role is to support the patient so that he or she can heal themselves. Envision’s approach has appeal as it stirs the innate qualities we were born with that evoke internal, genuine, organic joy.

My view of a doctor’s role is not to be the sole source of treating a patient. Rather, my view of the physician’s role is to support the patient so that he or she can heal themselves. Envision’s approach has appeal as it stirs the innate qualities we were born with that evoke internal, genuine, organic joy. It is that joy that counterbalances the stressors that people experience. A person may be able to heal more rapidly simply because they are better connected to others (personal connection, not social media) and feel more purposeful and valued. It is clear from multiple epidemiologic studies that people who feel socially connected have less disease and better outcomes. So if seeing and being kind activates this biology, then it would be a great complement to existing treatment, but it would also be an even better preventive intervention.

What impact and outcomes have you measured for the visual media campaigns?

In addition to qualitative feedback, we have done one research study with 400 people who were shown different types of images, including those of kindness. It was remarkable that in comparison to pretty pictures (puppies in a basket, bunnies, flowers), images of kindness (a woman in distress being comforted by a police officer) induced about twice the increase in joy, gratitude, optimism, etc. More about this will be coming out shortly in a blog on the science of kindness that we are developing.

What is it like to work on spreading kindness as a father/son team?

It has been fabulous. We have two very different approaches and ways of thinking with a common underpinning about wanting to make the world better.

If Envision Kindness could share one message about living gratefully, what would it be?

Living gratefully offers a unique opportunity for us to appreciate all the kindnesses that we have been granted such as seeing a sunset, enjoying a moment with someone special, or appreciating the beauty that exists in the world. Kindness is a positive and prosocial path to meaning, health, and happiness. Even seeing images of kindness can set you on the journey. 

To participate by submitting photos or voting for photos, please sign up for the Envision Kindness newsletter or follow Envision Kindness on Facebook.

To learn about other Grateful Changemakers, visit: Grateful Changemakers

Do you know of a project/program that elevates the values of grateful living? If so, we invite you to nominate them for our Grateful Changemaker article series.


Grateful Changemakers