What if YOU could touch the lives of ten million people?

Or twenty, or fifty million people? And do it in a way that is life-affirming, that strengthens the bonds of human connection, that spreads love and healing? Robin Youngson explores the nature of pro-social movements, which may be our most powerful way of changing the world.

Pro-social movements

Sadly, most so-called social movements are actually anti-social; they create opposition and conflict. Big social movements fight against environmental destruction, or big business, or poverty, or inequality, or violence. These movement are ultimately self-defeating because they cause resistance, they increase polarisation, they create an ‘enemy’.

What if we imagined a social movement that create no enemies, that builds bridges rather than  tearing them down, that increases human love and affiliation? A movement with these qualities is rightly called a ‘pro-social movement’. A pro-social movement has the capacity to grow endlessly because it creates no resistance.

If a pro-social movement had these eight rules it might be unstoppable:

  1. Mutually rewarding
    Every interaction within the movement is rewarding for both parties – those seeking change and those responding.
  2. Frictionless
    The movement creates no resistance, it does not judge, criticise, exclude or try to persuade. Because it is frictionless, the smallest action can begin a change.
  3. Developmental
    Each tiny act builds on the one before, enhancing capacity, increasing rewards and leading to sustainable change.
  4. Universal
    The actions required are innate and universal: any age, any culture, any language, any creed, as natural to a three-year-old as to a ninety-year-old.
  5. Transmissible
    The movement is contagious and self-amplifying.
  6. Scalable
    The interactions can begin with tiniest act, performed in a moment, and scale up to include deeply meaningful connections and life-changing encounters. One leads to the other.
  7. Meeting a deeply felt need
    The modern, materialistic world denies so many of our human needs and aspirations. Teachers who wanted to inspire their pupils find themselves trapped in bureaucratic systems of instruction; nurses don’t have time to care; customer service is equated with speed, not human connection. A pro-social movement begins to fulfil hopes and ideals, and it fills the gap between desire and reality.
  8. Life-enhancing
    Participation in this movement enhances all other roles, builds positive relationships, sharpens professional skills, improves outcomes, and adds satisfaction and joy.

These rules are not just a theory. They are a description of the qualities I believe apply to a real movement, Hearts in Healthcare, which seeks to strengthen humanity and compassion in healthcare. We didn’t know these rules when we started and we tried many strategies that were unsuccessful. The movement evolved in ways we didn’t expect.

In the five years since we launched in 2012, Hearts in Healthcare has likely touched the lives of ten million patients, perhaps dramatically more? Because this movement is largely invisible, we can only guess at the impact. What we do know is that the movement is spreading ever more widely and it’s starting to change the broader system.

What is the basis of our movement? Kindness, caring and compassion. These interactions obey the eight rules that I believe could create an unstoppable, pro-social movement.

If you change the nurse, or the doctor, or therapist, or midwife, then you change the experience of the patient. When people are ill, or injured, they are at their most vulnerable. Kindness, caring and compassion meet that vulnerability to have a transformative impact on healing and recovery. And when health professionals work with caring and compassion, they experience meaning and joy in their daily work. It is an antidote to the burnout that so many are experiencing.

On average, each health professional probably cares for a thousand patients in a year – just twenty a week. If ten thousand health workers shift their way of being by becoming more kind and caring, they will touch the lives of ten million patients each year.

That number of health workers have already read my book, ‘TIME TO CARE‘. My book has inspired people to make these changes. Some say the book saved their career or transformed their practice. Others find so much of value in the ideas and stories, they give the book as a gift, again and again – they want to share the message. Some workers just become kinder, or a little more empathetic, or a little more aware. Who knows?

The impact of our four-minute video, ‘Every ICU doctor and nurse should watch this film‘ is a good illustration of the power of stories to elicit positive change. On our YouTube channel, it’s been watched nearly 150,000 times. Other groups have shared the video and even subtitled it in different languages. I know any health professional who hears this powerful story, told by a patient, will change they way they care for patients on life support.

Then there are our blogs and articles, shared thousands of times on Facebook. Our message also resonates with people outside of healthcare, so magazines and radio shows want to share our stories. Trainers use our material and run programs in hospital and clinics. Writers and bloggers spread the word. Volunteers have translated my book into three languages, sparking local movements.

We give away our materials, including my entire slide collection of 120 lovingly crafted PowerPoint slides, complete with notes and scientific references. We just want the work to spread as widely as possible.

How far has our movement spread? When I do a Google search for “Hearts in Healthcare” there are 183,000 hits, a thousand more than yesterday.


How does kindness, caring and compassion fulfil the eight rules?

We know from the science of positive psychology that small acts of kindness and caring powerfully enhance the wellbeing of both the giver and the receiver. Kindness is also contagious, even in large organisations. A recent research trial primed just nineteen workers to be ‘givers’ and to perform daily acts of kindness for half of their co-workers – the ‘receivers’. The other half of the workers served as a control group.

Four weeks later, both givers and receivers reported increases in wellbeing and happiness. Moreover, receivers were observing ten times as many instances of pro-social behaviour, compared with the control group. Those who received kindness also paid it forward. By the end of four weeks, the receivers reported participating in nearly three times as many pro-social behaviours as controls. The kindness was not just being passed on; it was multiplying.

People who make a deliberate daily practice of kindness and caring also re-wire their brains, as documented by neuroscience researcher and author Dr Barbara Fredrickson in her best-selling book, ‘Positivity‘. The brain circuits associated with positive emotions get more connections while those connected to negative emotions start to shrivel. Every act of kindness increases the capacity for further kindness and caring. As we have seen again and again, health workers that adopt these practices begin on a sustainable journey of deepening kindness, caring and compassion, which become intensely rewarding. This is a developmental practice.


Pro-social movements are largely invisible.

For several years at Hearts in Healthcare we were disappointed in our results. In the beginning we imagined our movement in terms of metrics like, ‘How many active members do we have on our online community? How many people signed a petition or joined a campaign? How many members are leading programs within their own clinics and hospital?’

These visible signs of a movement never got off the ground. What we failed to appreciate is that pro-social movements are largely invisible. Tens of thousands of health workers are taking tiny actions each day that make a difference. The number is growing at an increasing rate and it’s crossing cultures and languages. We’ve been invited to fifteen countries to talk about compassionate caring. Those who are touched by the movement become role models for others, even if they don’t intend to lead change. Others become champions, spreading the word.

Five years on, their actions and ideas are percolating into the consciousness of professional organisations and the changes start to become visible. A new, peer-reviewed Journal of Compassionate Health Care came into being. Medical colleges are now starting to incorporate material on compassionate caring and self-care into the curriculum for specialist medical training. Prestigious medical journals are publishing editorials on compassion and humanity. It’s become a subject at specialist medical conferences. Even the Declaration of Geneva, the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath, has just been amended to include the doctor’s duty of self-care.


How did we inspire this movement? What strategies did we employ?

First of all, we publicly articulated a hurt and a need. We spoke about the pain of health workers who joined their professions to care for people, and who instead found themselves burnt out, working like robots in inhuman workplaces.

We shared inspiring stories about the possibility of individual change, how some health workers transformed from burnout to joyous and fulfilling practice.

We talked to people about the true nature and science of interpersonal connection and dispelled myths about clinical detachment and unfeeling objectivity.

We shared the astonishing scientific research about how powerfully caring and compassion can transform clinical outcomes for patients.

We let people know about the human capacity for healing and how an act of deep compassion can save a life.

We worked with groups of health professionals, not to teach them how to be compassionate, but  using appreciate inquiry drew out their own stories of compassionate caring. These stories uncover their innate strengths, skills and desires in human caring and remind them of their hopes and ideals. And their stories inspire many others.

And finally, we gave people practical strategies for beginning with tiny acts of kindness and caring in a harsh work environment where they believed they no longer had time to care. We showed how a small investment of time and human connection at the beginning of each patient encounter could make their work so much more effective and efficient, saving time at the end of the day.

We share these messages again and again – in my book, at conference and meetings, in blogs and articles, in short videos – all utilising the power of social media to reach a wide audience.

Individuals take this movement forward because this work is mutually rewarding, frictionless, developmental, universal, transmissible, scalable, meeting a deeply felt need, and is life enhancing.

We encourage our Hearts in Healthcare followers to re-double their efforts, to invite their workmates to join in the movement, to spread our material far and wide, to share their own stories. One person could touch the lives of ten million people.


Pro-social movements are possible in many other settings

What other human endeavours have these properties? In what other spheres might pro-social movements work?

  • Certainly teaching and coaching – at least in a way that honours the unique gifts of every human being and inspires curiosity and a thirst for knowledge.
  • Gifting and generosity.
  • Personal service of any kind.

These ideas are speculative. We’d love to hear the thoughts of other social activists trying to build a better world. Do these ideas ring true? Can you share other examples? Have we missed some of the elements?

For those who are inspired by these ideas, will you think about starting or supporting a pro-social movement today? Your impact might be enormous.

One way is to join the international Charter for Compassion. The campaign for Compassionate Communities is now engaged with hundreds of small and large communities and cities in over fifty countries. This might be the largest pro-social campaign in the world. It’s one that give us hope.

2 Responses to “What if YOU could touch the lives of ten million people?”

  1. Great reminder of how change can happen without power games. Healthcare so needs the reinvention of care and compassion and I honour the work you are doing. In mBraining we too focus on the role of compassion, along side courage and creativity and so your words resonate hugely with me. Thank you for all you are doing…seen and unseen

“When all members of an organization are motivated to understand and value the most favourable features of its culture, it can make rapid improvements.”