I am always taken by surprise. What should be the easy subjects always become the most difficult to write, but kindness is such a bland concept there seems little to say. Doesn’t everyone aspire to be kind and isn’t misanthropy such an unpleasant personal attribute?
Yet when it came to sitting in front of the computer, ready to write on this obvious virtue, it was hard to find the words.
Thinking about kindness, brought back memories of those long off corporate days when, twice a year, directors would meet to review all staff to talk about promotions and merit pay reviews. We would talk about everyone, extolling skills, and lamenting problems. Always there would be one or two of the staff who were almost unknown. We had nothing to say, and all we could agree on was that ‘he is very kind’.
In the environment, it was not a compliment. It was all we could muster. It rarely led to a promotion of merit pay increase.
Are we kind by nature is there something more sinister and why should we even ask the question?
We are wary when unexpectedly someone shows us kindness. We look for ulterior motive and assume that there must be something else at play.
It is because in this cynical world we assume that everything is an exchange. If I do something for you then you are obliged to do something for me. It has always been the nature of business that nothing is for free and in kindness, we often see a barter.
Altruistic behaviour has been studied by psychologists for decades and still they are confused and have come up with a range of theories to explain it. From a purely evolutionary view altruism or kindness makes no sense.
To help close relatives or even distant cousins may sustain the gene pool as they share most of the same genetics. Over the last year, I have been watching my daughter with her first child, the mighty Bertie. The kindness of a mother to a new child is awe inspiring. A mother gives everything to her child.
Or maybe, the psychologist says, it is a way of demonstrating our skills and resources as a way of impressing the opposite gender. ‘Look how good I am,’ you may be saying. ‘Look how I will look after you and our offspring.’
Or, it is a leftover from days when we lived in small groups and the protection of the group gene was the prime motivation for survival.
But all the theories are no more than an excuse for the behaviour and to explain away why we are kind. As one commentator said, it reminds me of my attempts to excuse my indolence when my wife comes home and finds that I haven’t done the DIY jobs I promised to. They’re attempts to make excuses for altruism: ‘Please excuse my kindness, but I was really just trying to look good in the eyes of other people.’ ‘Sorry for helping you, but it’s a trait I picked up from my ancestors thousands of years ago, and I just can’t seem to get rid of it.’
Business understands that there can be profit or at least benefit in social altruism. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is now standard and is a regular boardroom discussion. According to Investopedia, it is to take responsibility for the company’s effects on environmental and social well-being. Most companies set targets for CSR but is this altruistic behaviour?
For corporations to be robust and successful, they need to ensure the resilience of the community in which they work and the extended supply chains that serve them. Improving the conditions of the communities around them has a profitable impact. As always there is a reciprocal benefit. It is not pure altruism. Don’t believe Sainsbury’s or Marks and Spencer would advertise and sell goods with the sustainable label if it wasn’t something the consumer wanted or demanded.
Back to the psychologists. One of the benefits they say is that being kind can give a strong dopamine kick exciting your brain’s reward and pleasure centres. You can benefit from the kindness just as much and sit back and imagine how far you can climb up to the moral high ground when you tell your friends of your act of kindness.
I’m not going to proselytise the benefits of being kind but remember kindness is more than just giving. It an attitude about being sensitive to other’s needs.
In 1982, California, Anne Herbert wrote on a placemat, ‘practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty’ and the idea of a random act of kindness as a non-premeditated, inconsistent action designed to offer kindness towards the outside world, was born.
A friend who lives in San Francisco told me a story the other day. She and a friend were in a restaurant for a girl’s lunch. It was a light lunch and they were laughing and talking. As they finished they called over the waiter asking for the bill and were told that a man, who had since left, had already paid it. They don’t know who it was or why he had done it.
There is still a place in this world for kindness.