What is kindness?

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 1 of The Year of Happy‘s month on kindness. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

 

So far in the Year of Happy, we’ve learned about gratitude, optimism, and mindfulness – all practices that are more about attitude than action. Of course, we can express gratitude or do mindfulness meditation, but the point of doing these things is to fundamentally shift the way we think about the world, to change our habitual patterns of thought and feeling.

Kindness, in contrast, has a much larger action component. It’s also much more social than optimism or mindfulness. While there is such a thing as self-kindness – which we’ll talk about below – many acts of kindness connect us to the people around us. So what is an act of kindness, anyway?

What counts as kindness?

Author Stefan Klein defines altruism (a concept closely related to kindness) as creating benefits for others at a cost or risk to yourself. This could be anything from running an errand for a friend to feeding a homeless cat to cleaning up your neighborhood. (In the last case, you do enjoy the benefits but you probably contributed much more than your “share,” since everyone in the neighborhood didn’t participate in the cleanup.) 

Of course, we do get lots of benefits from kindness, which we’ll learn about in week 3. But under Klein’s definition, as long as there are costs – like your time, effort, or money – it’s an act of altruism.

This definition allows for many different motivations for kindness. We might be kind out of a feeling of empathy and compassion, which bubbles up when we witness someone suffering and want to help. Compassion is different from pity, which includes the belief that the person suffering is inferior to us. But kindness can also be motivated by other things, like gratitude or a desire to increase our reputation:

Kindness altruism empathy compassion

Witnessing kindness can also inspire us to be kind. Being in a group of people who give to charity – like a department at work – makes us more likely to donate. Kids who watch a Lassie movie where puppies get rescued are more likely to interrupt a game they’re playing when they hear distressed puppies than kids who watched the movie without the puppy-rescue scene. And of course, we’ve all heard of the famous 378-person-long chain of Starbucks customers who paid for the drinks of the person behind them. Jonathan Haidt coined the term “elevation” for the inspiring feeling of seeing others do good and kind acts, which might give us goosebumps or make us tear up.

Watch this video of 20 random acts of kindness and get an idea of some easy ones you can do almost anywhere – some anonymous, some not:

Surprisingly, paying people to be kind might actually backfire. Blood donations in the UK decreased when donors were paid, and Israeli children collected less money for charity when they were given a commission. It seems we prefer the intangible, emotional rewards of kindness, and getting paid gets in the way. 

The biology of kindness

When we’re kind, our brains release opiates, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin – the source of that warm, fuzzy glow of kindness or “helpers’ high.” Peering into a kind brain, we see activation in the same brain regions that light up when we receive a gift. When we give, we feel like we’re getting a reward.

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that works like a hormone in our bodies, reducing fear, anxiety, and stress while increasing feelings of trust, calm, safety, and connectedness. On a biological level, it improves our digestion, reduces inflammation, lowers blood pressure, and improves healing. It’s the same chemical that is released when we feel love and have sex. No wonder kindness feels good!

The evolution of kindness

So why do our bodies work this way? The answer lies in our evolutionary history, and the conditions that made kindness a crucial survival skill for our ancestors.

Tens of thousands of years ago, those ancestors lived in groups under tough conditions. Threatened by predators, wildfires, and famine, the ones who survived learned to stick together and cooperate with other tribes. Social traits like love, kindness, compassion, and gratitude kept bands of early humans close and reduced the conflicts that might occur when individuals hoarded resources. With babies born so young and helpless, a parental disposition for kindness and caregiving was particularly crucial to ensure genes got passed on to the next generation.

We also find evidence of kindness in ancient fossils, which suggest that groups caught buffalo together and shared the meat from deer and penguins. These are animals that a single family could easily have caught and kept for itself, but didn’t – evidence of early cooperation.

This evolutionary history explains why we tend to be the kindest and most protective of our family – those who share our genes – and less and less kind to strangers. But even so, we are extraordinarily kind to strangers: we volunteer to help those across the neighborhood and give money to those across the globe. What’s in it for us?

Klein’s argument is that it was too risky and effortful to reserve our kindness only for people who shared our genes. There were no ancient family trees to consult, and skimping on kindness meant we might leave a relative in need (even if it was a distant cousin). Plus, non-relatives could someday be useful to us or our family, so it made sense to cast a wider net of kindness. While kind acts have a cost and not every kind act is rewarded, on the whole our ancestors benefitted from being more kind.

Watch Klein discuss how kindness evolved among our ancestors and the evidence that it’s still part of our nature:

The kindness gene?

You might be tempted to think that kindness is just a social skill, something we’re taught by our parents along with saying “please” or “thank you.” But new studies suggest that kindness is hardwired into us. Even 18-month-old children, who are relatively unburdened by social norms, show strong tendencies to help others. At age 2, children prefer to be given a jelly bean and have another child get one, rather than just getting one themselves. And when you force people to decide in 10 seconds or less how much money to give, they give more than when they have extra time to think about it – suggesting that we have generous intuitions.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has done research into the genetics of kindness, and they found at least three genes that might play a role. One gene, a receptor of the neuropeptide vasopressin, determines how generous people are in a laboratory game. Another gene, this time on the oxytocin receptor, is associated with kind behavior. And more selfless people tend to have particular variations in the gene for dopamine receptors on brain cells.

Kindness toward the self

We usually think of kindness as kindness toward others, but kindness toward the self is no less important – and probably even less common.

Kristin Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explains self-kindness as being “gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental.” It means treating ourselves as we would treat a cherished friend, not filling our thoughts with “I’m so stupid” and “What’s wrong with me?” When times are tough, she encourages us to say to ourselves, “This is really difficult right now. How can I care for and comfort myself in this moment?”

“No matter how difficult things get, we can always wrap our torn and tattered selves in our own soft embrace. We can soothe and comfort our own pain, just as a child is soothed and comforted by her mother’s arms. We don’t have to wait until we are perfect, until life goes exactly as we want it to,” Neff writes.

Under Neff’s definition, self-kindness is one of three parts that make up self-compassion, along with a feeling of common humanity – the recognition that everyone suffers and makes mistakes – and the ability to be mindful of our pain without repressing or exaggerating it. Watch her describe self-kindness here:

“Kindness to yourself is perhaps the most important form of kindness,” writes David R. Hamilton in Why Kindness Is Good for You. It makes us calmer and happier, and it’s from this positive attitude toward the self that we can turn toward others and be kind to them as well.

What’s the most recent kind thing you did? The most recent kind thing someone did for you? Share them with us on our Facebook group.

Sources and further reading:

Move on to Week 2: How to cultivate kindness

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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