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Strategic Kindness: Linking Altruism to Self-Interest

Kindness, however defined, positively correlates with generosity and happiness.

Key points

  • Acting kindly can reduce or eliminate issues like social isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and depression.
  • Name a virtue, from tolerance to compassion to acceptance, and "kindness" has likely been attached to it.
  • Hans Selye’s research explains how kindness has various physical benefits, thus his term “altruistic egoism.”
  • Acting kindly mobilizes the same pleasure circuits as eating comfort foods, exercising, or engaging in sex.
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Kindness: A Topic Laden With Advantages, Ambiguity, and Paradox

Have you ever acted kindly when you really didn’t want to? And if you forced yourself to anyway, was it merely because you thought you should? That you’d feel guilty or ashamed if you didn’t act, or react, as your conscience told you to?

Writers on this subject typically claim that kindness is universal—a cosmic, age-old virtue. And that innately we all grasp that we ought to behave that way toward fellow human beings. Isn’t that, after all, the basis of the golden rule, the moral imperative broadly regarded as applying to all of us? Indeed, most researchers have concluded that this is the case scientifically.

Still, if the primary reason we act benevolently toward others is to avoid their disapproval, just how laudatory is it? Or how authentic, genuine, sincere? Does it actually reflect the essential goodness of our nature, or is it primarily self-interested?

Academic studies have repeatedly demonstrated that kindness, however diversely defined, positively correlates with happiness, both in the short and long run. And they’ve confirmed empirically the experience of laypeople that acting kindly immediately produces the feel-good chemicals sometimes referred to as the “helpers high.” Being kind can be seen as reinforced not just externally by others, but internally as well.

And, too, when the admirably pro-social aspects of kindness become habits, they’ve been shown to reduce or eliminate plaguing issues of social isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Also, its advantages—being both idealistic and practical—have routinely been linked not only to the praiseworthy traits of altruism, generosity, and happiness but also to personal and professional success.

At times, behaving kindly can be far less selfless than opportunistic, motivated by the conceited need to feel special and superior.

Perhaps what is most fascinating about kindness is how many other qualities it dovetails with. The abundant literature on kindness frequently regards it as synonymous (or at least analogous to):

  • Courteousness
  • Honorableness
  • Considerateness
  • Gratitude
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Caring for and serving others
  • Affection
  • Positive psychology
  • Self-worth
  • Acceptance
  • Tolerance
  • Volunteerism
  • A loving regard for humanity, independent of any romantic engagement or attraction—and (unquestionably most significant)
  • Happiness

In short, simply name a virtue and it’s likely the term kindness has been attached to it.

The rest of this post will focus, highly selectively, on the close connections between kindness and generosity, altruism, and happiness.

Source: Melnyk58/Shutterstock

Kindness and Generosity: How Are They the Same—Yet Different?

When looked at paradoxically, these two sterling qualities might be revealed as somewhat less gilt-edged. As many writers undertaking or reporting on multiple experiments have observed, performing kind or generous acts benefits the giver quite as much—or more—than it does the receiver.

Take C. Smith and H. Davidson’s The Paradox of Generosity (2014), which not only illustrates how practicing generosity is good for you but that the more you offer others, the better off you’ll be yourself.

Moreover, generously giving someone an expensive present is generally less meaningful (and generous) than giving them the “gift” of your presence. That’s especially true when a friend, feeling forlorn or miserable because they’ve just gotten laid off or divorced, asks for your company. And, however inopportune the time, you open-heartedly forsake your own needs to hang out with them as long as needed.

One article closely complementing this seminal book is entitled: “The Kindness of Paradox: Why Be Generous?” (Holmes, 2016). This author, viewing kindness/generosity cross-culturally, discusses instances in which non-reciprocal giving—giving without any expectation of compensation or monetary reward—can be injected into the very fabric of a person’s culture. It may function similarly to purchasing an insurance policy which, though you hope never to use it, nonetheless guarantees that any loss won’t be catastrophic.

Life is unpredictable, it makes perfect sense that in our evolution we came to realize that whatever competitive impulses we had needed to be tempered by interactional cooperation. If we withheld our help from others, we couldn’t much expect them to be there for us in our own time of need.

Psychotherapist Lisa Firestone (n.d.) aptly sums up the scientific findings on generosity to both our physical and mental health in its reducing stress levels; fighting depression; enhancing our self-image, relationships, and sense of purpose; and even extending our lifespan.

Does Kindness Stop Short of Altruism—or Are They the Same?

This section (like the next), coupling kindness with happiness, can be abbreviated. There’s no need to repeat points made earlier. And as already emphasized, kindness appears to be almost inseparable from many other laudable characteristics.

As theoretically conceived, both kindness and altruism are principally motivated by benevolence and the selfless desire to help others—versus getting some recompense or escaping punishment.

But since they’re both also invaluable stress reducers, it can’t be said that they’re entirely selfless, unless the compassionate individual remains totally oblivious to how their offerings redound to their own personal welfare. The research of Hans Selye, the pioneering authority on the dynamics of stress, explains how being kind to others leads to various physical benefits—such that it’s fitting to speak of such admirable behaviors paradoxically—as expressing “altruistic egoism” (The Stress of Life, 1978).

Additionally, this is from an essay encapsulating so much that’s been written about kindness and altruism that it's worth quoting:

Over and over . . . across history and species, we see individuals sacrifice their time, resources, safety and personal well-being to help others. Many—if not all—species of animals display altruism. There must be something inside of us that overules the biological imperative to compete and survive.

We all want to be treated well, and fairly. We prefer helpers to hinderers. Perhaps altruism is simply an extension of these congenital tendencies. [Yet also note] performing acts of kindness stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain activated when we eat comfort foods, exercise, or have sex. (From “What Makes People Selflessly Give to Others?” Anon)

Source: Ufabizphoto/Shutterstock
Source: Ufabizphoto/Shutterstock

Kindness as a Prerequisite to Happiness

As contrasted to happy people, many studies have concluded that unhappy individuals tend to be less emotionally stable and possess fewer social resources. At the same time, they’re more self-interested and self-absorbed than disposed to reflect on how their behavior could negatively affect others.

Generally, kindness doesn’t make it into their lexicon, although repeatedly researchers have found that, directly and indirectly, kindness contributes significantly to a person's sense of inner peace and well-being.

Many studies address this connection, but I’ll only cite one, which I think is representative. In it the authors affirm that kind people “experience more happiness and have happier memories,” and that kindness “can cause happiness” (Keiko, O., et al, 2006).

Because so many studies have suggested that the personality attribute of compassion underlies not only kindness and happiness but so many other positive qualities, I’d like to close with two elegant quotations from the Dalai Lama, linking kindness with that so-estimable trait:

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

© 2023 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


Barber, N. (2004). Kindness in a cruel world: The evolution of altruism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, Rowman & Littlefield.

Firestone, L. (2010, Nov 24). Generosity: What’s in it for you? Psychology Today.

Holmes, B. (2016, Aug 10). The kindness paradox: Why be generous? New Scientist.

Johnsen, A. (2016). Does strategic kindness crowd out prosocial behavior? Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

Otake, K., Shimai, S., Tanaka-Matsumi, J., Otsui, K., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2006, Sep 7). Happy people become happier through kindness: A counting kindnesses intervention, Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 361-375.

Smith, C., & Davidson, H. (2014). The paradox of generosity: Giving we receive, grasping we lose. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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