Recently, a customer at the restaurant where I work part-time gave me a tip of over $40. She was visiting from Southern California, so there were no perks in it for her (in terms of expecting great service and dining experiences at said establishment in the future).
“Keep the change,” she said, “That’s for you. Save it for a rainy day.”
The service that evening had not been fast. Though everyone in the kitchen and on the floor had been working as diligently as possible, it was simply impossible to keep up with the volume of people and orders in a completely timely fashion. However, everyone remained fairly pleasant, and when things calmed down, I was able to interact with everyone at this particular table in more detail than handing out extra napkins and asking, “How is everything?” in passing.
In talking with them for perhaps ten minutes in total during the hour and some-odd minutes they spent visiting, we all discovered commonalities and shared interests. We even had a few laughs. But none of these interests warranted a hefty tip.
No, that was just her random act of kindness for the day — and it shocked me to the point of speechlessness for a few seconds before I could thank her profusely.
Kindness is not a trait we emphasize as being interesting, important, or even necessary. In fact, if we’re honest, there’s a bit of cynicism in our culture that paints it as a sign of weakness or naivety, associating it with submissiveness, a dull temperament, or even stupidity.
Look no further than the banality inherent in our connotations with a description of “kind” or “nice” for examples of how often these words fall under the same category as calling something “neat.” We regularly contrast being nice with more interesting qualities, and downplay its value. If you have any doubt, consider how many times you’ve heard statements like the following:
“I don’t know her well, but she seems nice.”
“He helped you with your flat tire? That was nice of him. My son just graduated from Harvard.”
“That person isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but they’re nice enough.”
The main message is that being kind just doesn’t cut it. It isn’t making the most of life, and it’s certainly not something we brag about when we describe our partners, friends, coworkers or children. First, we’ll boast about their good grades, new promotion, charisma, or even their physical appearance (half a game of genetic roulette anyway).
Sadly, somewhat negative traits, such as: egotism, skepticism purely for the sake of being a skeptic (rather than seeking truth), aggression, and dominance, are seen in our pop culture heroes and movie leads with the inference that the person bearing them is cool, attractive, powerful, self-assured, and/or desirable in a way that ordinary human beings are not. In other words, being a jerk is “in” … to some extent.
There’s still a catch: We expect to see the millionaires engaged in philanthropy, and we cheer for the misunderstood narcissist who turns around and saves the world in the latest superhero franchise. If that’s the case, why don’t we just high five the Tony Starks of the world and accept this trend as the inevitable evolution of our society’s preferences? Because it’s all a farce.
We don’t really like those people who act more important than everyone else; we want to feel important ourselves. We don’t really enjoy those serial killer protagonists for their negative traits; we want to understand the paradox of their apparently incongruous moral codes. We want kindness, but we don’t want to be bored, and we’ve convinced ourselves that being kind isn’t all that interesting.
And yet, underneath it all, kindness is a quadruple threat: It makes us feel better, age better, think better, and live longer.
In the article “Being Nice Can Change Your Brain,” by Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D. of Psychology Today, acts of kindness are touted as a natural way to increase your serotonin levels. She also suggests tools such as “My Nice Journal,” (accessible online at www.anicethingididtoday.com) designed by colleague Dr. Robin Goldstein, to record conscious decisions to be thoughtful on an ongoing basis. Taking note of even the smallest gestures can make us more aware of our interconnectedness to each other, putting us in a better mood, and all without warning labels regarding pesky potential side effects.
And the health benefits aren’t bad either. As Dan Harris of ABC News reported in 2014, “being nice” via public service, volunteer work, charity and even meditating on compassion, can result in longer lifespans, promotions, higher pay in the workplace, and lower stress levels. In the ultimate circular reward system, it also happens to make it easier for you to show kindness regularly. In other words, the kinder you are, the kinder you’ll be, which means you can live longer as a kind, less-stressed employee.
No wonder researchers have actually nicknamed the results a “helper’s high!” Multiple sources endorse volunteer work as a way to fight or prevent conditions like heart disease and chronic pain (which makes a lot of sense, considering those are common conditions tied to highly stressful lifestyles) and it’s even been claimed that happiness ratings are as high for those involved in charitable acts as those who have recently earned a raise or attained a college degree.
We may not be able to prove, beyond a doubt, that kindness is a cure for anything, but it sure ranks highly as something that doesn’t hurt us.
Let’s suppose for a moment that none of this were true. Suppose that being kind didn’t change your neurochemistry or light up any special part of your brain. Suppose there were no studies indicating a longer, healthier life. Would you still be kind? Well, let’s hope so. Kindness also makes sense.
From a logical standpoint, violence has never been a first resort — nor has plain old grumpiness. In general, any organization or individual functions better when the participants involved are civil to one another. Why? Being unkind is usually an unnecessary imposition.
Even when it seems easier to be unkind, or to simply skip the simple steps taken to show a little courtesy, the end result of rude or self-serving behavior is usually a decline, delay or even a complete standstill to progress.
From this vantage point, kindness isn’t just the right thing; it’s the smart thing. And while we may not all have the money to leave a generous tip or the time to volunteer at a local organization, it never hurts to smile at someone, hold open the door for a few seconds longer, let someone merge in rush hour traffic, or simply excuse someone who is finding the art of kindness more challenging than you.
Megan Wallin is a young writer with a background in the social sciences and an interest in seeking the extraordinary in the mundane. A Seattle native, she finds complaining about the constant drizzle and overabundance of Starbucks coffee therapeutic. With varied work experiences as a residential counselor, preprimary educator, musician, writing tutor and college newspaper reporter/editor, Megan is thrilled to offer a unique perspective through writing, research and open dialogue.