According to positive psychology pioneers Martin Seligman and David Petersen in their book Character Strengths and Virtues, kindness refers to “doing favors and good deeds for others; helping them; taking care of them.” Kindness can be broken into two main categories:
- Being kind
- Receiving kindness from others
Often we prioritize the being and focus less on the receiving. Let’s break both apart. What constitutes a true act of kindness? “Acts of kindness focus on promoting positive outcomes for others rather than for oneself.”according to researchers Trew and Alden.
Biologically humans needed social instincts like kindness to:
- Enhance group cohesion and bonding
- Help us act as caregivers
- Keep us safe from other tribes
- Increase our experience of Positive Emotions
- Relax our facial expressions (we smile more, our faces soften)
- Neural firing pathways (begin thinking down the same lines)
- Heart rhythm (heart rates slow and begin to match each other)
According to Dacher Keltner in his book Born to Be Good. Kindness enables us to work together as a tribe. It’s innate. Yet just because something is innate doesn’t mean we always do it. Kindness can be both caught and taught. It involves nature AND nurture.
So while we may initially experience intrinsic motivation to do something, it still requires environmental supports. Most children begin to hear about kindness as one of their first lessons in a school setting. Kindness includes manners, fairness, generosity, turn-taking and words of praise or gratitude.
Neuroscientist Jamil Jaki from Stanford has developed a ten-week experiment “Becoming Kinder” exploring generosity, goodwill, and empathy. Designed as an empathy gym with ‘kindness challenges like
- Reverse the golden rule
- Spend Kindly
- Disagree better
- Kind Tech
- Be a Culture Builder
that are specifically designed to encourage individuals to step out of their comfort zones in the name of being kind.
Another common kindess practice is a random act of kindness. According to the Greater Good Science Center there is actually an optimal dosage for random acts of kindess- 5 acts of kindness in one day.
One of the benefits of kindness according to psychologist John Gottman who has been researching couples in his “Love Lab” at the University of Washington for over 4 decades is better relationships. His obsession involves understanding what factors predict a successful relationship. Over decades he has interviewed hundreds of newlyweds with one goal, to see them argue. When Gottman observes a couple argue he can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples will stay together and be happy, stay together unhappily or split up. What it comes down to is kindness and generosity. “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger, but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger.”
Being kind to yourself, self-compassion, is also incredibly important to wellbeing, People who treat themselves kindly feel more empathic concern, they are more altruistic, they feel more connected to the world around them and they feeling more socially connected (especially in the teen years).
Kindness can be as simple as a smile and using someone’s name in conversation. When you make eye contact and use people’s names you elicit oxytocin production. This small act of kindness increases wellbeing.
Kindness can also be a grand gesture like the ones told on the podcast Kind World such as carrying a baby for a sibling or crossing the border multiple times a week to deliver water, food, and lessons to children seeking asylum.
Try these simple ways to activate kindness:
- Use someone’s name
- Hold a door for someone
- Pick up litter
- Let someone into your lane while driving
- Pay for the order behind you in the drive-thru
- Take a neighbor’s garbage bins to and from the curb
- Compliment someone
- Clean up after yourself
- Send a “thinking of you” text
- Remind someone of a positive shared past experience
- Include someone new on a social outing
- Let someone who wants to help you, help
- Don’t offer advice unless asked
- Share silence with someone
- Engage in random acts of kindness
- Engage in kind acts that are not random at all
If you are like most people, you probably find it easier to be kind than to be on the receiving act of a kind act. Indications that this is true include deflecting compliments or not accepting gratitude. Sometimes receiving kindness and compassion can feel threatening, as though the one being kind is somehow superior. If you notice you have trouble receiving gifts, compliments, or acts of generosity and love, spend some time reflecting on why. Who taught you to behave this way or modeled this behavior? Many people have adopted this learned behavior as a way of being humble. If someone gives you a compliment, not receiving it stops its power for both the giver and the receiver.
*originally written for the Institute of Positive Education