February 16th – 23rd is Random Acts of Kindness Week! Kindness is nourishment for our souls, so let’s use this week to celebrate and explore the philosophical and scientific roots of human kindness.
What is kindness?
Mark Ian Barasch has written one of my favorite books on the exploration of compassion and kindness, complete with philosophical, religious, and scientific investigations of what it means to be kind. In his book Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness, we learn that true kindness is a coupling of empathy with intention and action, as we will touch on later. But kindness is also benevolent and intelligent: real kindness involves giving to others in a way that does not deplete ourselves or another.
With all these moving parts, we can see that living in kindness is quite an involved process. This is what makes acts of kindness so special. To know that someone recognized your feelings, reflected how to address them, and then actually put that thought into action – its makes us feel seen and cared for. And who doesn’t love that!
Why be kind?
Kindness – why bother? Someone once told me there is no such thing as altruism for the sake of altruism, and instead the root of all altruistic action is self-preservation. This person argued that we help others to oblige our half of a social contract, with the expectation that we will one day receive help when we need it. While I instinctively wanted to dismiss this idea, it kind of makes sense. After all, humans are interdependent, social species; cooperation has always played a key role in humanity’s success. Therefore, we don’t have to be a “good person” to be kind; we just have to be what we already are. I personally find that to be a sort of relief! I highly recommend you check out The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness by Oren Harman for more on the paradoxical nature of kindness.
Kind actions belong everywhere, even the workplace! Acting with kindness can save us money and increase happiness at work, according to The Power of Nice by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval. Studies have shown that even the smallest positive action can have a ripple effect in those around you. So, be nice to one grumpy coworker, and in a few weeks time, you might notice more positive feedback from everyone. RandomActsofKindness.org actually offers a free yearly calendar with small kindness tasks you can complete in your workplace throughout the week. Because kindness is contagious!
How to be kind
In A Year of Living Kindly, a personal documentation on adopting kindness as a lifestyle, Donna Cameron explains that the difference between being nice and being kind is our intention. True kindness requires a little extra effort, as we previously noted. Cameron explains several obstacles which sometimes prevent us from offering true kindness, including fear, anger, apathy, inertia, shyness, and even our routines. The last three in particular are usually the case for me, especially shyness. Taking a leap to not only interact with a stranger, but address their situation in a positive way is not always easy. Of course, the more we practice, the more second nature this process becomes!
If you’re looking for inspiration, reading about other’s actions can inspire us to act kindly. Chicken Soup for the Soul: Random Acts of Kindness: 101 Stories of Compassion and Paying It Forward offers tangible examples of those who give and receive kindness (just so you know, this book will make you cry). Even just contemplating kindness can manifest positive things: not even five minutes after I finished reading this book, I went to my desk to discover my boss had crocheted a wool koozie for my water bottle! It was a beautiful, random act of kindness, and the timing could not have been more profound.
Kind things you can do today
There are numerous ways to be kind, and accordingly, many worthy subjects to receive kindness – including the people around us, the environment, and ourselves. If you want help getting started, Pema Chodron is an incredible source for learning to cultivate kindness within ourselves and others. I highly recommend all of her writing, but especially her book Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living.
We each have something that we care about, so let’s use this week to show it! Jump start your kindness with some ideas below:
- Create something for someone. Hand-made gifts really are the best!
- Offer a genuine compliment.
- Bake something yummy for your coworkers.
- Use your money kindly by shopping locally.
- Write a positive review for your favorite restaurant.
- For more ideas, check out RandomActsofKindness.org.
For more books on kindness:
- The Art of Being Kind by Stefan Einhorn
- Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness by George Saunders
- The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip – George Saunders
- The Hidden Power of Kindness: A Practical Handbook for Souls Who Dare to Transform the World, One Deed at a Time by Lawrence G. Lovasik
- And basically anything by Pema Chodron