What is kindness?

What is kindness?

Jennifer Smithberger
February 13, 2019

I recently typed this question into Google: What is kindness? My simple question returned 160 million results in half a second. There were definitions by dictionaries like Cambridge, Oxford, the Urban dictionary and Wikipedia; explanations from countless experts from psychologists to spiritual leaders; thousands of quotes from sources ranging from Greek philosophers to American novelists; and my favorite, videos of kids explaining what kindness means to them.

‍As I perused these results, I realized something: there is no single way to define kindness. Kindness is a feeling and an act. It can be extended anonymously or come from a friend. Kindness can be found in the smallest of acts or grandest gestures of appreciation. It can end after one exchange, or it can perpetuate touching many people.

I believe trying to find one definition of kindness minimizes what the meaning really is, but there are some traits that outline what it can be. Here are a few of those attributes to help you identify it in your life.

The Meaning of Kindness

Kindness is personal.

What you believe is kind may be different than what another person thinks, and that is okay. An excellent way to create your definition is to think of a time in your life when someone was kind to you. How did it make you feel? That feeling is your personal definition of kindness. You should strive to help others feel as good or as special as you did at that time.

Kindness is different from being nice.

The words nice and kind are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. Nice is what a person is thinking and feeling in a specific situation. Kind is how you act and why you act this way. I’ve often associated nice with being polite and respectful, and kind with being sympathetic and helpful. When my husband and I went on our first date, he ordered a spinach salad as an appetizer. At the end of the meal, after our main course and dessert, he went to the restroom. Taking a glance in the mirror, he noticed a large piece of spinach wedged between his front teeth. When he returned to the table, he asked if I had seen it. I replied, “Yes, but I was trying to be nice and not make you feel uncomfortable.” He told me the kind thing to do would have been to tell him immediately, so we wouldn’t have experienced an embarrassing first-date moment. Though we now look back on this incident with humor, it is great example of how being nice is not the same as being kind.

Kindness is contagious

You have probably heard of the kindness phenomena “pay it forward.” Studies have shown that when people see acts of kindness, they receive a natural high. Researches have coined this effect a “moral elevation” because it inspires optimism and makes people want to be a better and act altruistically toward others. That’s why any single act of kindness has the potential to start a chain reaction far beyond the original act. The catchiness of kindness is not limited to witnessing it. A 2012 study published in “Psychological Science” found that simply thinking about times when you’ve helped others will make you want to do so again. Reflecting on your past good deeds and how they made you feel encourages you to do good again.

Kindness is good for you.

Kindness stimulates the production of the “feel-good” neurochemical serotonin, which has a calming, mood-regulating, and anti-anxiety effect in the brain. The University of British Columbia studied a group of highly anxious individuals and asked them to perform at least six acts of kindness a week. After one month, these individuals experienced a significant increase in positive moods, relationship satisfaction and a decrease in social avoidance. So your kind acts not only help others but also make you feel better.

Kindness is easy.

Do you remember learning about The Golden Rule in grade school? It is a philosophy any religions and cultures the prescribes treating others as one would like to be treated.

Kindness doesn’t have to be planned out or complex. As you go about your typical day, remember the Golden Rule, and seek opportunities when you can apply it for the people you interact with. Simple acts such as smiling, making eye contact, saying thank you and giving a compliment have the potential to brighten someone’s day. Perhaps at first you will have to remind yourself or make it a point to do one act a day, but before you know it, it will become second nature.

Kindness starts within you.

A common misconception is that kindness is something you do for other people. While doing kind acts for others is important for our personal wellness, being kind to ourselves is essential for our overall mental and physical health.

I am working to become more kind to myself and reverse decades of self-critical habits. As a teenager playing competitive tennis, it seemed natural for me to focus on the shots I missed versus the points I won to understand how to improve my game. My career in communications and event planning pushed me to try to exceed clients’ expectations and anticipate the unforeseen. I was constantly questioning what more could be done and preparing for crisis scenarios. When I became a stepmom, I wanted to establish a good relationship with my stepdaughters. Unsure of my role, I was always over analyzing, preparing and even practicing everything I said to make sure I got it right. When being kind to myself, I’m learning to become my own best advocate and allowing myself to start with compassion.

Regardless of how you define (or don’t define) kindness, it starts within you. Each day we have a choice to make our day or the day of someone else a little better. In a world where we see negative news all the time, taking a few moments to begin your day with positive intent and being kind to others can help make the world a better place.

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