One of the strongest findings in the literature on happiness is that happy people have better relationships than do their less happy peers.  Investing in social relationships is a potent strategy on the path to becoming happier.

The moral dimension of being kind, generous and giving is undisputed.  The Bible exhorts us “to be generous and willing to share” (1Timothy 6:18).  At a very early age we are taught the idea that kindness and compassion are important virtues and that we are to apply these virtues for there own sake because by definition, it is the right thing to do.  It may be ironic, but being kind and good even when it’s unpleasant or when one knowingly will receive nothing in return is also in the doer’s self interest.  This is because being generous and willing to share makes people happy.  Why?

Let us count the ways.

Being kind and generous leads us to perceive others more positively and charitably (“the homeless veteran may be too mentally ill to work”).  It fosters a heightened sense of interdependence and belonging in your community.  Doing kindness can relieve guilt, a sense of discomfort over other’s difficulties and suffering, and fosters an awareness and appreciation of your own good fortune.  It is a welcome distraction from your own troubles as it shifts your focus to someone else.

A large benefit of kindness is impact on self-perception.  When you practice acts of kindness you begin to see yourself as an altruistic person.  This new identity can promote a sense of confidence, optimism, and usefulness.  You may learn new skills or discover hidden talents…. for example, by honing your teaching skills through uncovering a flair for children or the elderly.  This itself can promote a sense of self-efficacy, one of the primary keys to finding meaning in one’s life.

Finally, and most importantly, kindness can jump-start a cascade of positive social consequences.  Helping others leads people to like you, to appreciate you, and to offer gratitude.  Helping others satisfies the basic human need for connecting with others, winning you thankfulness, bright smiles, and valued friendship.  The main reason that being kind to others makes us happier is that it leads you to know how much you are appreciated.


Survival of the Kindest


In November 1943, S.L.A. “Slam” Marshall, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, arrived on the beaches of Makin Island in the South Pacific to fight the Japanese.  After four days of bloody combat he was asked to interview many soldiers to clarify some specifics of the battle, with medals, heroic claims, and rights to wartime stories at stake.  Marshall subsequently interviewed hundreds of soldiers who had fought in Europe and the South Pacific and published his results in Men Against Fire.  His interviews yielded an astonishing finding: only 15% of WWII riflemen had fired at the enemy during combat.  Often soldiers refused to fire at the enemy with superior officers barking commands nearby and bullets zipping past their heads.  In the wake of this revolutionary finding, the army radically changed how it prepared soldiers to kill.  Infantry training exercises played down the notion that shooting kills humans.  Soldiers were taught to shoot at non-human targets and subtly taught that the enemy was more non-human as well.  According to army estimates, 90% of soldiers in the Vietnam War fired at their enemies.

Had he been able to do so, Darwin might have placed Marshall’s empirical gem in his first book on humans, Descent of Man, published a decade after The Origin of Species.  Darwin argued that the social instincts to sympathy, play, belonging in groups, and worrying about the regard of others… are all a part of human nature.  Our moral capacities, Darwin reasoned, are rooted in sympathy.  These capacities are constrained by association or familial relatedness (later called kin selection theory).  Later, in explaining acts of altruism Darwin proposed that we evolved tendencies toward goodness that are performed with the automatic, well-honed speed of other reflexes… the flinch of the body at a loud, unexpected sound, the grasping reflex of the young infant.  These reflexes of empathy are stronger than those towards self-preservation, the default position of timid men.  Darwin’s early formulations of the social instincts of humans were clearly tilted in the direction of the good being stronger than the bad.

Cro-Magnon Notes

A detailed portrait of the life of our hominid predecessors would shed light on our environment of evolutionary adaptations.  Since we will never have such a book we must turn to our closest primate relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos in particular, with whom we shared a common ancestor some 7-8 million years ago.  We can also look at remote tribes in the Amazon, Africa and New Guinea to provide hints at what life might have been like for our hunter-gatherer predecessors.  In looking at these species closely we find that our hominid predecessors spent most of their minutes alive in the presence of other group members, living with 30-75 group members.  Division of labor was pronounced: females served as primary caretakers of infants and food gathering, while males devoted much of their time to hunting, carving spears, etc.

There would be evidence of the darker side of our predecessors, and the origins of the disturbing tendencies of contemporary humans.  The Cro-Magnon anthropologist would have ample data about the regularity of male-on-male violence.  There would be observations about warlike behavior, and raids on other groups that might give rise to murder and rape.  At the same time however, chapters about the social dimensions of hominids would reveal the origins of emotions like embarrassment, compassion, love, and awe.

Take Care or Die

The prevalence of care giving is a main feature of higher primates.  Chimpanzees and bonobos become wildly distressed when witnessing harm to other group members.

Chimps and bonobos routinely protect their own born blind.  They shift their play and physical navigation of the environment when interacting with fellow primates crippled in some way.  They are attuned to harm and vulnerability.  Care giving became all the more important due to the radical dependence of our predecessor’s offspring.  The infant’s brain in homo erectus was 50% larger than their immediate predecessors, without the body to support it, resulting in longer periods of careful nurturance.  Care giving is a way of life in humans, and has been wired into our nervous system in the forms of emotions, such as sympathy and filial love.

Face to face

The amount of time we spend alone commuting, on the Internet, or fingering our Blackberry is an aberration for our species and is a source of many contemporary social and physical ills.  Early humans required one another to accomplish the basic tasks of survival and reproduction.  They did so in highly coordinated ace-to-face interactions.  Studies of archeological sites reveal consistent evidence of cooperative hunting for meat.  The continual coordination required of early human social life coevolved with morphological changes that gave rise to our remarkable capacities to communicate.  We lost hair on our faces and developed a wide range of expressivity.  We developed a human voice, which in contrast to other mammals enabled us to exhort, punish, threaten, tease, comfort, soothe, flirt and seduce with the voice.

Cro-Magnon CEOs

Primate life is hierarchical, in large part because hierarchies enable group members to decide how to allocate resources with speed and minimal conflict.  Higher status primates spend a great deal of their day smoothing over rough edges of their group’s social life.  They are the ones who are most likely to mediate conflicts, for example by bringing adversaries into physical contact with one another and encouraging grooming activities that reduce conflict.  They are the ones who make sure that more equitable allocations of resources occur.  Research with humans paints a similar picture.  It is not the domineering, fear-inspiring backstabbing types who gain elevated status in the eyes of their peers.  Instead it is the socially intelligent individuals who advance the interests of other group members (in service of their own self-interest) who rise in social hierarchies.  Power and status goes to those who are socially engaged for the greater good.  Social Darwinism is founded on social intelligence.





How to Practice Kindness


First of all it is important to remember that when you decide to practice acts of kindness you will know what to do.  No one needs to tell you just how you should become a more compassionate, generous, or giving person.  Ever babysat for a harried parent when you were asked?  Ever traveled to see a friend in need?  Smiled at someone who needed a smile even when it was the hardest thing to do at that very moment?  The point is that all you have to do is to open your mind to the possibilities for kindness: as you look with fresh eyes they are all around you.

Second, the deed not be grand or complicated.  Sometimes people go to great lengths seeking special causes to which to dedicate themselves when those special causes are living very close by.  You do not have to compete with Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama.  Acts of kindness can be small and brief.


Timing is Important


In practicing acts of kindness you may choose to decide which acts you intend to do, how often, and how much.  Research suggests that you may gain more happiness from choosing a single day in the week and performing one large act of kindness or, several little ones.  If you choose the idea of a single day, the acts need to be “new and special” since you are likely to be doing numerous kindnesses every day, and  therefore need to do something to pull you out of your routine.


Variety is the Spice of Life


Another implication stemming from kindness research is to vary what you do.  Putting extra change into parking meters or doing an extra chore gives you a lift the first few times you do it, but after a time you will adapt to the habit and it will no longer grant you the same amount of happiness.  More major commitments that involve deeper contact with other people (i.e., tutoring a student, fund-raising for a cause) may not lend themselves to the same degree of adaptation and may continue to produce benefits for you.

Continually varying your acts of kindness takes creativity and effort.

Here are a few ideas.  If you are short of money give the gift of time.  Surprise someone with the gift of a home cooked meal.  Try to do something that does not come naturally.  For me, it’s being nice to telemarketers. Work to develop your compassion, your willingness to empathize.  Imagine yourself cold calling all day long to advertize a product you could care less about and being rejected the vast majority of the time. Imagine what it would be like to not be able to pay your bills?  Imagine yourself being illiterate?   Imagine being unable to drive a car.  Keep imagining yourself as a less fortunate person and your compassion instinct will surface for many people who live a marginalized existence.

At least once a week do a kind deed for one of these people that you tell no one about and for which you expect nothing in return.


Ripple Effects


In designing your unique kindness strategy, remember that acts of kindness often have ripple effects.  The recipient may be surprised or comforted and your thoughtful act may trigger the person to return the favor to others.  Research shows that simply witnessing or hearing about a kindness leads people to feel elevated and increases their desire to perform good deeds.  Kindness is one happiness strategy where behavioral contagion has been well documented.  The only trick is that you will likely never actually know how far the ripple you created traveled.




When Kindness “Kills”


The platitude that kindness always brings you happiness has several important qualifications.  Certain kinds of helping behavior can be detrimental to your health.  The one we know most about is full-time care giving for a chronically ill or disabled loved one.  Caregivers of spouses with Alzheimer’s disease show depression levels three times greater than the average person.  The dilemma is that any behavior that is burdensome or interferes with your daily functioning may backfire as a path to happiness though it may remain the honorable or decent thing to do.

Another caveat is that acts of kindness need to be done freely and autonomously.  Any sense of being forced to comply with another’s wishes will surely bring resentment that will outweigh any benefit.

Finally, unless the situation is critical, resist the urge to help those who don’t want your help. Some people deeply resent being indebted or beholden to others and should not be made to accept what would likely create hostility in return.  Give kindness mindfully.



Don Crowe, PhD




Posted on November 23, 2012, in Mental Health. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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