What is kindness?
Are we talking about the same thing? And why is it important?
If asked, most of us would probably agree that kindness is a Good Thing.
If we know what it's like to experience kindness (and I hope you do) we know that genuine kindness feels good - whether we're giving or receiving it.
But do we think that kindness is necessary for our well being? Apparently not so much - in fact there are a lot of misunderstandings about kindness.
What kindness isn't
Some people question the motivation behind kindness, or they'll say that it's superficial, or a pretense, or even that it's not natural for us humans and can’t be real.
But kindness isn’t just a self-serving act - it isn’t doing things to look “good,” to be seen as doing the “right” thing, to impress others, to earn “brownie points,” or to hide our nasty nature. This isn't true kindness - behaving this way is more about embellishing our self-image - and it's likely to feel cold and hollow to the people on the receiving end.
And kindness isn't about pretending, hiding how we really feel, deceiving ourselves or others - smiling through gritted teeth, putting being “nice” and “positive” ahead of dealing with things that aren’t ok. That's avoidance, not dealing with things that are uncomfortable rather than having the confidence of kindness, that we can and will manage them.
It isn’t about being meek, complacent or unassertive - just going with the flow and not rocking the boat. That's another avoidance - giving up and not kindly holding to our values.
Nor is it a sign of weakness, of lacking a winner’s instinct - you don’t have to give up kindness to be very effective and successful.
Kindness isn’t the mark of a martyr. People who seem to give and give, neglecting their own needs until they hit burnout - they aren’t being too kind, they are being unkind (to themselves and, ultimately, to others.)
It isn’t some lightweight sugary schmaltzy superficial thing - sweet but with no substance. Like good nourishment, kindness isn’t optional if we want to live well.
Most importantly, kindness is a natural part of being human, a strength that helps us to survive and thrive.
People often emphasise “fight or flight” human behaviour, but this isn't our baseline state - it’s a survival reflex, a response to stress and felt danger. The stress response can result in suspicion, aggression towards anyone perceived as a risk. While it helps with immediate danger, staying in this state keeps us tense, guarded, looking for what's wrong. It does not allow us to thrive and in fact harms our long term health and well being.
The human capacity for kindness has a much more lasting and positive impact on our ability to survive. Our human ancestors were very vulnerable if alone (as we still can be), but in a cooperative social group they were able to thrive.
Prosocial behaviour such as kindness has been a critically important part of human development. Kindness and cooperation is wired into our brains, part of our basic nature, ensuring our survival.
So, what is kindness?
For a start, kindness can be used to describe an attitude, a quality of feeling, a type of behaviour or way of doing things. "Kind" comes from the word kin, and incorporates the idea of belonging, and the group we belong to - “humankind.”
Kindness can be reflected in our attitudes, it can be experienced as a feeling or quality in how we respond to ourselves or others, and it can be seen in the things we do - a kindness is a kind act.
If we look for definitions of the words kind and kindness we find a wide range of “positive” qualities - the idea of ethical behaviour, of generosity, friendliness, concern for others, thoughtfulness and caring, and a capacity to learn about the needs and sensitivities of others. Kindness is respectful, warm-hearted, considerate, seeking not to cause harm or damage (as in “kind to the environment”). “Fellow-feeling” is another way of describing kindness - this reminds us that in being kind we are showing some awareness and consideration of what a situation is like for someone else because of what we have learned through our own experiences. It reminds us that kindness reflects our connection and shared experience as humans rather than being about the things that separate us.
This is the kindness I am talking about.
Like these clouds, kindness might look just soft and fluffy
But like the water in the clouds
Kindness sustains life