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The Benefits of Being Kind

Donna Cameron knew she was a nice person — polite, respectful and friendly. But, she wondered, was she kind? Did she venture beyond routine pleasantries? What about going out of her way for others, even if it required only a smidgen of effort? Cameron decided that she could extend herself more fully, and she recounts how she did it and what she learned in her new book, A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You.

Below, Cameron delves into the science of kindness, including the emotional and professional rewards that can accrue to those who are good-hearted and benevolent. She also offers a few suggestions for anyone seeking to put these principles into practice.

What prompted you to undertake this goal?

I’ve always really admired kind people — just the way you feel in their presence — and I wanted to be kind. I think I’ve always been a nice person, but I don’t think I went the extra mile. I would set an intention to be kind and go out of my way for a short time. But then my life, my job and my stresses would get in the way, and I would let it fall by the wayside.

You make a distinction between niceness and kindness.

For some people, the difference is probably just semantic. They may view niceness and kindness as interchangeable. But I see a really large difference. I was raised in a family where I was continually told to be nice but never told to be kind. Nice is safe. It doesn’t ask me to take any risk or really put myself out there. I can be nice to someone and still make judgments about them or be impatient. Kindness asks a lot more of me — to suspend judgment and accept people as they are. It’s wanting to connect, help and serve.

Are there examples of kindness in action?

It could be offering to carry somebody’s packages. Or allowing a car to merge in traffic. Or noticing when someone needs some attention even though you’re in a hurry. I think time is a big factor. We’re all overscheduled and overwhelmed, so we say to ourselves, “I know the kind thing to do would be to stop and help here, but I don’t have time.” An opportunity to go a little further happened to my husband and me last week at our bank. We pulled up and there was a car with the hood up, and the fellow’s battery was dead. My husband went over and gave him a jump while I went into the bank.

You talk in the book about kindness being contagious.

Kind things can appear to not make that much difference. Nobody will notice if we don’t do it. Nobody’s going to notice if we don’t allow a car to merge in traffic. But if we do it, it’s going to make a difference to that driver, and he might allow the next car to merge, and that can be contagious. Studies show that both kindness and unkindness are contagious. If we experience rudeness, whether it’s direct or if we just see people behaving rudely, it causes us to behave more rudely. But the good news from science is that kindness is equally contagious. Whether we extend a kindness, receive a kindness or even merely witness one, that causes us to be more kind in our future encounters. We have a choice as to which contagion we want to spread.

Explain the importance of giving the benefit of the doubt to others.

We don’t know what motivates somebody else in a given situation. Something in their life may have stressed them to the max, and they’re behaving in ways they wouldn’t ordinarily. If we ourselves behave rudely, we want others to give us a pass and understand that we’re just having a bad day. We give ourselves a pass for these behaviors, so why can’t we give other people a pass?

You make the case that accepting a compliment is an act of kindness, which seems counterintuitive.

A lot of us are really good at giving but not at receiving. That goes for gifts, compliments, a seat on the bus, whatever it might be. Maybe we don’t feel we deserve a compliment or it makes us feel a little awkward. Someone gives us a compliment, and we deflect it. They say, “That’s really a nice suit you’re wearing,” and we say, “Don’t you see that I’m missing a button?” We point out a flaw, which tells the complimenter that he or she was wrong. It takes away from them the pleasure of giving a compliment.

Is there a risk that kindness will lead to being exploited or taken advantage of, even in small ways? Or that being kind makes someone come across as bland or dull?

The biggest misconception about kindness is that it’s a sign of weakness. The truth is that kind people are the strongest among us because they’re willing to take a risk, face the unknown and do something that other people aren’t going to do. Part of the problem is that kindness generally isn’t loud and overbearing. It’s sort of a softer strength. But being kind doesn’t mean you’re a pushover, and it certainly doesn’t mean you accept people’s abuse. It’s just the opposite. It’s standing up for someone who maybe is being bullied or treated unfairly.

What are the benefits of kindness in the workplace?

There’s so much research showing that in business kindness really is a competitive advantage. Kind businesses are more successful, more profitable and more productive. They have happier and healthier employees. There’s been a lot of research showing that employees of companies with kind cultures perform at about a 20% higher level. One of the staggering statistics for me was that they’re 87% less likely to leave their jobs. Turnover is a huge problem, and replacing employees is time-consuming and expensive.

You write that kindness has a profound effect on health.

That was a surprise for me. In recent years, there have been a number of studies about the measurable effects of kindness, and there are a number of them on health. When we experience kindness, our body produces the hormone oxytocin, which lowers blood pressure, and it reduces inflammation. It fights heart disease. It slows aging. Kindness has also been shown to reduce chronic pain, increase happiness and reduce stress. Another study found that kindness helps alleviate social anxiety in people who are shy, even debilitatingly shy.

You recommend that people take a deep breath and pause in trying situations. Please explain.

A pause really lets us decide who we want to be in this moment and the next moment. It gives us the gift of grace. It’s a huge skill, and not all that easy. All of these skills — withholding judgment, paying attention or pausing — sound simple. But they’re not necessarily easy, and they really take some practice. They can become our default settings, but they’re not something you can just turn on and off. They all take practice.

The above article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Quarterly Insights magazine.

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