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How to spread the love this Valentine’s Day

Retailers have certainly turned the business of romance to their advantage. From opulent set menus to heart-scattered greetings cards, cute fluffy toys to elaborate bouquets of flowers, 14 February is a firmly-established annual retail extravaganza.

But with Valentine’s Day falling in the middle of ‘Random Acts of Kindness Week’ (11 - 17 February), we decided to take a look at celebrating love in the wider sense - including inspiration for how to share more happiness with everyone around us.

Not feeling the love

If you’re single (or unhappily coupled), Valentine’s Day can be a very isolating experience. Email, social media and advertising are inescapable in this digital age and an avalanche of ‘lovey-dovey’ messages can combine to make it a challenging time of year.

Even the most resolutely ‘single and loving it’ among us can struggle in the face of this romance-fest and experts have discovered that loneliness can be as damaging to our health as smoking or obesity.

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo believes that loneliness is contagious too, with neighbours becoming increasingly isolated over time. So what can we do to help our communities stay happy and healthy?

Kindness queen: Bernadette Russell

Following the 2011 riots, author Bernadette Russell (@betterussell) undertook a pledge to be kind to a stranger every day for a year. This resulted in a blog, 366 Days of Kindness, shows, interviews, articles and even three books; children’s activity books Do Nice, Be Good, Spread Happy and Be the Change, Make it Happen and for adults, The Little Book of Kindness.

Bernadette explained, “It’s all about fun ideas and practical tips that encourage you to be kind in every area of life - online, to strangers, to the environment, in your community, to yourself - and change the world, one act of kindness at a time.”

During her year of kindness, she spent Valentine’s Day with friends, travelling around London, handing out 150 handmade cards to total strangers.

“Our mission was to reclaim Valentine’s Day as a festival of love for humanity,” said Bernadette.

It’s an idea backed up by the people behind Random Acts of Kindness Week, who have gathered together research proving that kindness increases our energy, happiness, lifespan - and even our levels of ‘love hormone’ oxytocin.

With Bernadette’s help, we’ve put together a few ideas for ways to be kind to people far beyond your romantic relationships.

Ways to be kind to:

1.   Yourself

Be aware of your inner voice and the negative messages it sends. Whatever our perceived weakness is, we tend to look for confirmation of it in our actions. Miss the bus? We berate ourselves for constantly being late and stupid. Lose our keys? We’ve always been a disorganised idiot.

Steve Blakeman shares practical tips to drown out your negative inner voice, including a unique and unexpected affirmation. As well as trying these ideas, make a point of countering every negative comment your inner voice pings your way with a positive remark (‘I’m really kind to people’, ‘I’ve got amazing taste in shoes’).

2. People closest to us

‘You always hurt the one you love’, as the old song by The Mills Brothers would have it. We do sometimes take our family and friends for granted - which is entirely the wrong way round when you think about it.

One of the kindest gifts we can offer is our undivided attention. Even if you can’t do anything to help, people often simply want to be heard. The Huffington Post has some wonderful tips on active listening, including how to reflect back, ask open questions and reframe situations for an alternative point of view.

3. Strangers

During her year of kindness, Bernadette found she didn’t always see the benefits of her selfless acts. But she soon realised that just knowing she’d done something nice actually boosted her self-esteem, so the kindness certainly wasn’t all one way.

She gave away bunches of flowers, baked cakes, handmade cards, helped carry heavy parcels and even slipped £5 notes between the pages of books and left them for people to discover.

“My friends thought I was mad,” she said, “My mum kept telling me to stop giving money away because I wasn’t exactly a millionaire.”

“It was incredibly time-consuming but people’s reactions made it worthwhile.”

But kindness doesn’t have to cost a fortune in time or money. Why not compliment a parent on their child’s great manners, donate old books to a library or home, or put together a self-care package for a women’s refuge? For Valentine’s Day, grab a pad of sticky notes, write light-heartedly loving messages on them and sneakily stick them anywhere they’ll be seen.

4. Virtual connections

With the internet shielding us from human contact, it’s all too easy to punch out an angry post or sarcastic reply. Remember, though, there’s a real person with real feelings on the other side of the screen.

Sharing positive stories helps to drown out the avalanche of negativity. If someone gives you great service, post a great review. If they fall short of your expectations, speak to them privately, instead of inflaming the situation with a public humiliation.

And if you’re sharing tales of your own hearts and roses-filled Valentine’s Day, just be aware of friends who may be struggling with loneliness or loss on 14 February - and beyond. Don’t censor your happiness but do be mindful.

5. The whole world

Yes, you’re only one person but your actions do have an impact. Take time to make good choices; take public transport where possible, don’t waste energy or food, eat more local, seasonal produce and buy clothes and household goods from ethical suppliers.

But don’t take it all on your shoulders. As Bernadette says, “If you sometimes look at the news and feel overwhelmed, it’s good to remind yourself that you can’t fix it all.

“Every person has the power to make the bit of the world that they occupy a little bit better. You can do that just by being kind - and that’s enough to change the world.”