The selfish act of kindness

Kindness is a win-win quality.

Posted Dec 17, 2009

This time of year kindness becomes almost cliche'. We give toys to kids who otherwise wouldn't have them. Load bags with canned foods for the hungry. Make donations to those who need it. And sometimes - just sometimes - we let someone crowd ahead of us in a busy store, or we smile at, instead of fighting with, that guy who grabs the last Chia Pet. This time of year, it seems, we focus more on doing good and being good. Certainly, that's not a bad thing

But, is all that kindness - selfish? Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley say that kindness, and related qualities like empathy, sympathy and compassion are actually a form of self preservation. Those who give more, get more. The most generous among us have greater influence and are, to put it in seventh grade terms, more popular. Whereas, the meanies who are grouchy and unhelpful are more likely to be cast adrift from our clique. After all, it stands to reason, that if I'm paddling your lifeboat, you'll keep me afloat a little longer.

So, is kindness motivated by our genuine concern for others or are we do-gooders because it makes us look good and shores up our position in the ecosystem? Probably both. Most of us genuinely enjoy helping others. It makes us feel good, connected, happy and that makes for a healthier more satisfying life. But, it doesn't hurt that we also receive other rewards - status, cooperation, influence - that will help us survive and thrive. Who can complain?. If you're Mr. Nice Guy, every body benefits.

Despite all the perks, I tend most often toward kindness only when it's convenient. That doesn't mean I have bad manners. I say my pleases and thank yous. I hold the door open for people. I RSVP. But, I could be kinder, more often. Sometimes I'm stymied by just how to do it. Sometimes, I'm just not thinking enough about others to recognize the need. Sometimes, I'm plain, old selfish.

I'm working to be more aware of those around me. To slow down and move with patience and purpose. To be more kind. My acts of kindness aren't grandiose or flashy - I'm not the type. They aren't expensive - I'm too cheap. But those things aren't required. You don't have to feel guilty that your kind gesture wasn't as big as say, Oprah building a school in Africa.

Kindness can be a small, simple act and still make a gigantic impact. It's more a matter of awareness. Noticing a need and then consciously offering a bit of yourself. It's the moment on the freeway when you sincerely smile and wave at the guy cutting you off instead of gesturing in a different way.

Here are some other ideas to get you thinking:

  • Help someone unload the groceries from their cart.
  • Drop off a meal to a friend who has a new baby.
  • Write a love note to your partner.
  • Put your neighbor's newspaper on her front porch during your morning walk.
  • Look the checker, bank teller, waiter, or others who serve you, in the eye and say "thank you."

The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation
  also has pages filled with kind ideas and inspiring stories.

Remember, the act doesn't have to be epic to make a difference. And, thanks to evolution, it's one way we can all win.