When kindness is hard, try this

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 4 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. 

When we’re stressed, we tend to turn inward. So as we rush around and check off to-do’s in our busy lives, kindness can fall by the wayside.

Because kindness benefits other people, it can be easy to get down on ourselves when we aren’t kind; it feels like we’re shirking a moral duty. Then the excuses come in: well, I wouldn’t have made a big impact anyway, or maybe they didn’t want my help. It’s easy to rationalize away the need for kindness, but we’d be doing a disservice to ourselves and to others. Below are four common obstacles to kindness and self-kindness, and some suggestions for how to move past them.

Problem: Kindness feels like a chore

“When volunteering becomes an obligation instead of something you feel drawn to do, it can take on the same feeling as a routine day job,” writes David R. Hamilton in Why Kindness Is Good for You.

If kindness becomes a chore, that isn’t good for anyone – would you want your spouse helping you out with dinner just because they’re supposed to be kind? If your heart’s just not in it, here are a few tips:

  • Make a choice: We feel better when our kindnesses are freely chosen, not something we’re forced to do. If the mandatory company-bonding bowling trip feels artificial, try buying your colleagues a coffee or offering to babysit their kids.
  • Get the timing right: In a famous study, students at the Princeton Theological Seminary were asked to prepare a talk on the Good Samaritan story and then put into a real-life Good Samaritan situation: as they were walking to the venue for the talk, they passed someone in pain. And the only factor that affected whether students stopped was whether they were late for their talk – in a hurry. Do you feel like you’re constantly in a hurry? If you just don’t have enough hours in the day to volunteer at church or go see an elderly neighbor, maybe opt for a less time-intensive kindness, like donating to charity. (Or rethink your busy lifestyle – but that’s another story.) 
  • Accept some gratitude: We’re discouraged from lending a hand when our contribution doesn’t seem to matter, such as when lots and lots of people are in need. It helps if we feel connected to the recipient and if the helping actually involves spending time with them. Maybe it’s time to stop donating to abstract charities and spend more time (but less money) in the local soup kitchen.
  • Have concrete goals: One study showed that having concrete goals for your kindness makes it more rewarding than having abstract goals. For example, it’s better to aim to make someone smile vs. make someone happy, to recycle more items vs. support environmental sustainability, to help someone find an organ donor vs. give them hope. The rationale is that our acts of kindness sometimes fall short of the more abstract goals, or it’s hard to tell if we accomplished them, so our expectations are disappointed. But when we have concrete goals, it’s easy to see how we’ve made a difference.

And most of all, remember that kindness that seems so simple to you can be more impactful than you’ll ever know:

Read “To the Woman Behind Me in Line at the Grocery Store”

Many people in the helping professions aren’t so much bored by kindness as distressed and exhausted. Caring for someone who’s chronically ill or disabled, for example, increases the caregiver’s risk of depression. Too much exposure to people who are suffering, the very people we’re trying to help, can burn us out and sap the positive energy we need to be of use.

This is a problem that still plagues industries like health care and social work, and there is no easy solution. But part of the answer is self-care: making sure to take the time to be mindful of our emotions and process our own reactions. This may be hard for people whose instinct is to think of others first, but in the long run it’s the only way to keep genuine, effective kindness alive.

Problem: I don’t want to embarrass myself

If we’re on the fence about performing a kind act, we often get stopped by embarrassment or uncertainty. Does the person really need help? What will they think of me if I do help? Will they be suspicious of my intentions?

It takes bravery to be kind. Sometimes it means going out on a limb – like sticking up for someone whom everyone else is picking on. Writer George Saunders remembers a similar incident from his childhood and the lasting mark it left on him in a commencement speech at Syracuse University:

The workplace is a controversial place for kindness, and it’s one of the contexts where kindness might appear weak. Read more about the problem and some of the ways to gently incorporate kindness into your work:

Read “Kindness and Corporation”

Problem: I don’t want people to take advantage of me

In the article below, Jen Kim tells the story of being the “nice” one as a child – for all the wrong reasons:

Read “The Perils of Being Too Nice”

There are certainly people who take advantage of kindness, particularly in a case like Kim’s: when we’re nice in order to get approval from others, and they know it. But Kim’s story also points to some possible solutions to this problem. Kindness doesn’t mean you have to be nice to everyone, particularly the people who “wouldn’t dream of returning the favor.” Also, voicing your opinions and standing up for yourself isn’t unkind, even if it means disagreeing with other people. Kindness includes self-kindness, and letting people take advantage of you is unkind to yourself.

Uma Girish also felt taken advantage of by a friend, who only wanted to talk to her when she needed a shoulder to cry on. Girish eventually broke off the friendship, but later reconsidered her decision after the death of her parents. Sometimes, we can stop being taken advantage of by voicing our concerns – or changing our perspective:

Read “From Chennai to Chicago, Tough Times Taught Her to Be Kind”

Problem: I don’t deserve kindness

“When we make a mistake or fail in some way, we’re more likely to hit ourselves over the head  with a club than put a supportive arm around our own shoulder,” writes Kristen Neff in Self-Compassion.


Neff, who’s no stranger to that inner critic herself, explains that we hang onto our self-berating habits because we think they make us feel better.  We think, “At least the part of me that was constantly judging and criticizing myself was good, even if the rest of me was bad.” We think kindness would be indulgent or narcissistic, because we don’t deserve it.

But her research has shown that we’re wrong – in fact, it’s people who are self-kind who can look at their mistakes honestly and act to change them. In a twisted way, self-critical people fear admitting their own errors because they know they’ll unleash a storm of put-downs and name calling upon themselves, whereas self-kind people can face up to reality without that additional pain.

Buddhist teacher and psychologist Tara Brach explains a mindful way to be kind to yourself in moments of suffering:

Read “A Gesture of Kindness”

Kindness may not always be easy, or always feel good, but what sort of person do you want to be?

We could even see the pursuit of happiness – learning practices like gratitude and forgiveness – as a form of kindness to the self and others. As we grow happier, we not only feel better but become better friends, relatives, and spouses. We become a positive presence that radiates warmth and joy to those around us. Learning to be happier is far from narcissistic; in fact, it might be one of the kindest things we can do.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 3: The benefits of kindness

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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