Intentional Acts of Kindness
When a NYT reporter Catherine Pearson asked if I’d comment about some cool research on kindness, it got me thinking. How can we make kindness more intentional? I wrote a book on the subject four years ago. A lot has happened since. I’m tickled that she took some of what I said for her NYT Well article, The Unexpected Power of Random Acts of Kindness. Here’s what I shared.
Being kind requires practice
I have found that kindness can be a really hard sell. People desire kindness yet often feel inconvenienced by the thought of being kind! Maybe we are a bit worn out as the pandemic has dragged on. But there seems to be an inherent paradox with kindness. Ask people what they want to see in a partner, a friend, a boss, or their own children? “Kindness” nears or tops the wishlist. We yearn for it.
People also tend to rate themselves as being a kind person, or like to picture themselves as caring, generous and thoughtful. Who wouldn’t, really?
Yet, when it comes to enacting kindness as a core value or daily practice, we mere humans can fall short. There’s no doubt that we are wired for compassion and kindness as Charles Darwin observed many years ago. He suggested that the instinct for compassion is more salient than that of physical strength and fitness (1).
Moreover, our nervous systems evolved for social engagement (or prosociality as the scientists like to say), down to very minute gestures, such as eye gaze, the tilt of head, tone of voice, handshakes, hugs, and high fives (2). After all, these are adaptive strategies not just to survive but to thrive.
I often ask people to recall a kindness done to them and most everyone comes up with something right away. It’s usually not epic, but some small encouragement or a helping hand when it was needed. Then I ask people to recall the last time they were kind toward someone else.
People need to think about it!
What gets in the way of kindness?
The simple answer is stress and the little judgy voice in our heads.
- What if my kindness/gesture is misinterpreted?
- Maybe I’m being foolish.
- Who do I think I am, anyway?
- What if they think I feel sorry for them?
- I hope they don’t feel pressure to pay it back.
And so on. When the kindness impulse arises, we totally overthink it.
Of course, if a tragedy occurs or hits close to home, helpers will come out of the woodwork. We rally the troops. This is awe inspiring and gives us a measure of hope in humanity. But is that what it takes? As one friend from Newtown, CT, said to me in the aftermath of Sandy Hook’s school massacre, “So many wonderful acts of kindness were displayed and are still happening today. It makes me sad that it took a horrific tragedy for this to happen.” (3) It is true: the basic human instinct for caring is right under the surface ready to reveal itself. That we could allow this instinct to be a daily practice would be a worthy goal.
The emerging research on kindness proves our ancient wisdom (4, 5). Basically, kind acts are good for you, it’s good for the receiver, and the goodwill is amplified into social networks. As a society I’d like us to flip the script on “random acts of kindness” and replace the bumper stickers, shirts and memes with “intentional acts of kindness.”
Seriously, be intentional! Put in the joyful effort and quiet the inner doubter.
How can you make kind acts more intentional?
Buying a cup of coffee, bringing cupcakes to work, opening doors, thank you cards, and donating to a cause are all wonderful gestures. We could practice this regularly, just like eating well and exercising. But these acts are fairly painless.
What if we raised the bar on kindness by putting in a bit more effort. Let your kind act have a cost to your time and attention. Stretch the compassion muscle. It will be much more meaningful and memorable.
Kindness: Ten Ways To Not Be Random
- Make kindness a daily practice. Commit to doing or saying one kind thing every day. Follow this up by sharing your gesture with someone you know. You’ll be surprised with the conversation that arises.
- Donate your time. One to two hours of volunteering a week has many benefits, not only for the recipients but for your overall health, including reducing loneliness and increasing longevity (5).
- Engage the face-to-heart connection. After several years of masking, we’ve had to rely on eye contact at the expense of the full range of expressions. Now’s a great time to exercise all the facial muscles that truly connect us to one another. Offer a genuine smile. Express emotional warmth. (Be authentic, not creepy.) (2)
- Don’t attach yourself to an outcome. Be kind without expecting acknowledgement or something in return. Don’t overthink it. Be kind for the sake of kindness.
- Find a compassion buddy. We need allies. It’s too easy to get caught up in daily hassles and to-do lists. Join a team or find at least one person to share your adventures in kindness.
- Expand the breath. Manage your stress-survival reactions that keep you self-focused. Belly breathing and feeling your feet rooted to the ground goes a long way. This offsets the inevitable fight/flight response that is triggered the minute the internal alarm goes off, .e.g., when you scroll social media, or you find yourself in empathic distress from seeing the pain in the world.
- Communicate appreciation when you are the receiver. In addition to expressing “Thank you!” or “I appreciate you” or sending a string of emojis, be very specific. Let the person know that you paid attention to their generosity and how it affected you.
- Pay it forward. Catch it backwards. This is another cliché that is a cliché for a reason. Keep the long arc of goodness in mind by tending to the welfare of others and the planet, even if you might not live to see the results.
- Look for the good in the world. Broadcast it. Keep in mind that what we inject into our social circles, good or bad, will reverberate out three degrees (6). Be intentional about where you place your attention and what you share. Be a happy virus.
- Be kind to yourself. It’s much easier to be kind to others than to ourselves. Practice directing kindness to yourself, just like you would toward a dear friend. Oh, and that little inner judge? It’s just a small part of you trying to protect you from being vulnerable. Reassure it, love it and transform it. It takes courage to be kind to yourself. Try it.
- Keltner, Marsh, Adam Smith (Eds.) (2010): The Compassionate Instinct
- Porges (2021): Polyvagal Safety: Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation
- Cousineau (2018): The Kindness Cure:How The Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World
- Curry et al. (2018): Happy to help (a meta analysis) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103117303451; Kumar & Eply (2022), (8 kind act studies), A little good goes and unexpectedly long way
- Post (2017): Rx It’s Good to be Good (G2BG)
- Fowler & Christakis (2011), Connected