Kindness is not new. It wasn’t even new when the Good Samaritan stopped to help an injured man whom others had passed by. He felt compassion for a stranger in difficulty and, at some cost to himself, aided his recovery. He gained nothing other than the satisfaction felt when you know you’ve done the right thing, even though it was easier to walk on by.
In 2015, Stanford University carried out an experiment with their students and a control group in which the former carried out five weekly acts of kindness, from buying food for the less fortunate, to helping someone with their homework. Over a six-week period the students reported higher levels of happiness than the other group, suggesting that being altruistic can actually make us happier.
It may be hard to pinpoint why that is, but if you think of the feeling you get when you visit an elderly relative or help a friend in need, there’s a sense that you’ve done something that actually matters.
And that is a contrast to most of our activities. You get the “I’m glad I did that,” feeling. It might not have been the activity you really felt like doing at that time, but it gave you a lift to know you did something for someone else’s benefit.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, talks about whether we anticipate that warm feeling we get when we’re kind.
“My hunch is that people do have such intuitions. Whether the explanation is an evolutionary one (it is evolutionary-adaptive for humans to know that kind acts will make them happier and benefit them) or perhaps a social learning one (we simply recall having felt good after helping others in the past), we do seem to recognise that doing kind acts for others will make us happier – or will at least make us feel good temporarily.”
Not that kindness is purely a matter of self-interest. Yes it feels good, but it’s not like a glass of beer, where you know how you’ll feel during and afterwards. It’s hard to comprehend the reward for kindness in advance, even if at some level you’re aware there is one.
There is evidence to suggest we are hard-wired for kindness. Charles Darwin is often remembered for the “survival of the fittest” theory of evolution (he never used that phrase) but in The Descent of Man he argued that we are a caring and social species, that we are instinctively interested in each other and have a natural sympathy for each other.
If we were all the same and the survival of the fittest were to be taken literally, our societies would be homogeneous groups of people with similar attributes and characteristics. That is not human society. We are all different, even if only in small ways.
Just as we need a wide gene pool to produce healthy offspring, human communities need people to perform different roles. Human bands have needed the strong, the fast, the nurturing, the clever, the quiet, the patient, the funny, the odd and the kind to form a cohesive unit.
Again, Lyubomirsky reports on the benefits of kindness. “Recent experiment showed that doing acts of kindness for others leads to changes in immune cell gene expression associated with disease resistance,” she reveals.
Take an online social experiment by Heineken, for example. The idea that there is more uniting us than dividing us was explored in their #Openyourworld campaign, where two strangers with very opposing views (one is pictured above) met for the first time and found common ground.
It is fair to say that the people involved demonstrated a noticeable lift after sitting down with their counterpart to discuss further.
Kindness has even become a movement. The Random Acts Of Kindness Foundation, founded by kindness advocate Houston Kraft, is trying to make the world “a cooler, kinder place”. And they’re succeeding. They have over 10,000 ‘RAKtivists’ in 80 countries and are just one of many groups celebrating World Kindness Day on November 13 by paying it forward and putting someone else first.
Simple acts such as holding a door open for someone, can elicit a ‘thank you’; a human interaction that makes the day a little better. It’s been called the Virtuous Circle, whereby one good deed begets another and little by little we make the world a better place. A ripple effect occurs and little by little people become happier.
Kindness to strangers is almost as old as humanity itself. It costs nothing and we all gain. Everyone feels better for the transaction and a connection is made. We come to know we are all in this together and appreciate sometimes we need a helping hand.
Time to go make a difference to someone’s life.