We asked an expert exactly why it’s good to be kind — and how to make kindness a part of everyday life.
November 13th is World Kindness Day, observed internationally to encourage acts of kindness. In honour of this day, we thought we would explore what we know about random acts of kindness as a way to practice generosity, and further investigate what we know simply about kindness in day-to-day life.
We were curious because it can be difficult to see how others’ are being kind. After hearing one too many disheartening story, we might feel like no one is really taking the time to care and be compassionate. To add, humans are unfortunately predisposed to think that others don’t have as good of intentions as themselves.
I would suggest to you, when you are feeling a bit cynical about the world, to ask someone about the last time they helped someone. In an informal survey, Charitable Impact asked a number of people this very question at our recent TechPong party. The event brings together the tech community and others to raise money for the causes they care about.
Kindness all around
Every single person we asked at TechPong had a story of recently helping another person out, some with heartwarming details. Just that week, Jessel Aquing had pushed a man’s car up a hill and helped him fill up his car that had run out of gas near Aquing’s house. He had learned to be helpful from his dad, who was so moved he cried when Aquing told him how he had helped the man.
Others had recently helped a colleague at work (“It felt validating, like I knew something, I could solve a problem.”), had given up their seat to someone older on the bus (“It felt pretty good. They thanked me when they sat down.”), had helped someone with heavy luggage board a bus (“It felt good.”), or had helped someone apply for a job (“It makes a difference.”).
In act of reciprocity, one person we spoke to had invited someone he didn’t really know to become his roommate because they had nowhere to live. The helper himself had fallen into homelessness when he immigrated to Canada, having previously lived a very comfortable life.
“You never know when it’s going to be you [who needs help],” added Aquing.
Kindness comes with its own rewards
With these encouraging responses in mind, we wanted to dive a bit further into exactly what we know about kindness and its impact. Clichés about kindness abound. You have probably heard a few that turned out to be valuable nuggets of knowledge. Sayings like “kindness always comes back to you” or “kindness is never wasted” might have inspired you to be more generous at moments in your life. And, that likely felt pretty good.
That’s because many of our longstanding beliefs on kindness have turned out to be true. You don’t need to take our word for it, we asked an expert.
Firstly, we know it really does pay to be kind. “A growing body of research shows that people who engage in kind or generous behaviour experience higher levels of happiness and health,” said Dr. Lara Aknin, Distinguished Associate Professor of Psychology at Simon Fraser University. Her research focuses on well-being, happiness, social relationships, altruism, money, social mobility, and inequality.
Dr. Aknin’s views on the benefits of being kind-hearted are not unique. Today, most scientists have joined with the idea that being generous and kind comes with certain rewards. Yes, that’s right: In giving you receive.
Studies show that even very young children feel better after giving. Among older adults, helping others through volunteering has been linked to reduced levels of high blood pressure.
Because we are empathetic creatures our own moods can mirror those of others within our sphere of awareness. So helping someone feel better or improving their situation—even if it’s someone you have never met—can in turn make you feel better. This is why we can get an emotional boost from donating to charities that support people, be they living in our own community or across the world.
Can kindness be planned?
The question remains: is it better to commit random acts of kindness, or to approach kindness as a conscious and intentional part of everyday life? Neither can be prescribed as totally right or wrong, but there may be benefits to approaching grace and giving more thoughtfully.
Dr. Aknin’s own research has shown that engaging with charitable giving can make us feel good, but only really great if we know and understand the impact of our giving.
It comes back to that old adage about good intentions along the road to not-so-great places. Having the right motivations for giving is helpful, but you can get even more of a reward if you do your research or if you receive feedback about the impact of your kindness. An experiment for the study found that participants experienced more happiness when it was explained to them how their donation was being used to make a difference to the receiver of the gift.
Intentional acts of kindness can bring greater reward
Did your donation help someone across the world to improve their living situation or are you unsure of how it was used? If you feel that your donation didn’t really make a positive change in someone else’s life, you are likely not going to feel as good about it, according to the research. The same was found for money spent personally on others.
These principles apply from the personal to the global. We can also feel better if we see a situation or problem that bothers us and are taking conscious efforts to remedy them. By contributing towards change, we can feel that we are making an improvement on a situation—which can enhance or amend our own outlook.
With that in mind, there may be ways to more consciously be aware of how you exercise the kindness muscle in life. You don’t need to take on the world’s biggest problems but can start from right where you are, using your own basic capacities for good. “I think we can make small acts of kindness a habit by trying to help one stranger daily,” said Dr. Aknin. “This could be as simple as holding the door open for the person behind you, letting another car ahead of you on a busy road, or treating a friend to coffee.”
You will probably feel good about it and even better if you get a smile in return.
Don’t give up on spontaneous acts of kindness
So, to sum up the research, kindness is most rewarding when it is informed and impactful. Putting some work into being benevolent can potentially reap more rewards, but that doesn’t mean you should give up on small acts of kindness.
If kindness can’t be entirely intentional or planned, at least it can be mindful. “When you aren’t tuned in, you might miss it,” said Tarrin McDonough at TechPong.
Finally, even if you may not see it, your small act of kindness has the potential to have a resounding impact. There is a ripple effect that can lead beyond our direct experience, affecting and improving others’ lives. “The relationship between helping and happiness is bi-directional, which means that helping makes you happy and happiness promotes helping behaviour,” said Dr. Aknin. “I find this particularly exciting because it means that a few small kind deeds may set off a virtuous cycle.”
So, go and be kind. Then imagine the impact of that kindness spreading out far and wide.