Nephew: The happiness experts tell us if we want to be happier, being kind to others is a good place to start. You would have to agree with that, surely?
Uncle: I would not.
Nephew. Why not?! When we act kindly, we feel good about ourselves, and happier. Or have you never been kind? No? Try it some time.
Uncle: I’m listening to your drivel right now. How much kinder could I be?
Nephew: Studies show that charitable people are happier.
Uncle: I’m still dubious about studies claiming to measure happiness, but even if those studies are correct, it could be that being charitable doesn’t make a person happier; rather, a happier person might tend to be more charitable.
Nephew: Why would you think that?
Uncle: A happy person feels they can handle what happens in life, so it’s easier for them to part with their time and money. They don’t fear the loss. They don’t fear being diminished.
Nephew: Blah blah. The point is, we do feel happier when we are kind to others.
Uncle: Let’s say you perform an act of kindness.
Uncle: But the recipient doesn’t thank you. They don’t even acknowledge you. Or, they sneer and mock you. How would you feel?
Nephew: . . . Lousy.
Uncle: Yet according to the happiness gurus, performing an act of kindness is supposed to help you feel warm and fuzzy, and happier.
Nephew: But my act of kindness was unappreciated.
Uncle: That’s my point. It’s not the act of kindness which makes us happy, it’s feeling appreciated for it. When we perform an act of kindness, and are appreciated for it, we satisfy our need to contribute and to feel valued for our contribution. Yet the happiness gurus simplistically focus on the act of kindness itself, as though it’s the act itself which does the magic.
Uncle: So, we need to focus on feeling valued, long-term. Performing an act of kindness, and being appreciated for it, is just one quick fix.
Nephew: Long-term? We need to be kind daily?
Uncle: I’m not suggesting that. Being kind is just one way of many to satisfy our need to feel valued, and it won’t work for everyone. Some people have poor self-esteem and don’t allow themselves to feel valued, so they gain no benefit from being kind. Some people lack empathy, and can’t fathom how pleased the recipient of a kind act would be. And, being kind requires a vulnerability, because it can set you up for rejection or being taken for granted. Some people aren’t ready for that.
Nephew: Fair enough.
Uncle: And some people simply enjoy being unkind.
Nephew: Why would that be?
Uncle: Perhaps they don’t fear disapproval, and find that liberating? Each time they are unkind they can liberate themselves a little more, and feel a little less anxious and a little more powerful?
Nephew: Would that work?
Uncle: I don’t know. In the short term they might feel good, but in the long-term they’re creating a disconnection between themselves and humanity, and for core happiness that’s a problem. They might end up living an isolated life, and wonder why. Then again, I don’t know. Humans are complex creatures.
Nephew: Are some people, like hardened criminals, unkind because they have lost the capacity to contribute and feel valued? And feel connected?
Uncle: Again, I don’t know. That could be one reason. Hardened people may have given up on the idea that they could be valued, as a human being, by anyone. The concept may be alien to them. Not having that bond with humanity might prompt them to be harsh, or fearful, or isolated, with the people they meet.
Nephew: Maybe that’s why they wear their crime as a badge of honour, to give themselves value?
Uncle: I don’t know. Do criminals wear their crime as a badge of honour?
Nephew: Maybe our prison system could focus on helping inmates feel they are contributing?
Uncle: Perhaps. Though let’s not hold our breath. Some prisons are run by private, profit making companies.
Nephew: Alright, but for most of us, acting kindly and being appreciated for it is a good way to feel valued. That’s why so many people are volunteers.
Uncle: Yes. If you feel the urge to be kind, go for it. Acts of kindness can foster compassion in you and in the recipient, and if they help you feel valued, great. But don’t feel that to be happy you have to go and do kind things. It doesn’t work that way, despite what the gurus say. Avoid dreary obligation.
‘. . . your neighbour is unwell and you take their dog for a walk; you might do so because you genuinely want to help them at this difficult time, or you might do it resentfully. The first will make you feel good, the second won’t.’
From John-Paul Flintoff,’s book ‘How to Change the World’.
Nephew: If we are kind, can we expect something in return?
Uncle: No, give your favour freely. Otherwise, it’s a transaction. If you want it to be a transaction let the other person know before you do them the ‘favour’. And remember, if you do require compensation, that could diminish the other person’s appreciation, and diminish your opportunity to feel valued and connected. It’s when we give freely we benefit most.
Uncle: It’s the message we send: ‘You are worthy’.
Nephew: They benefit.
Uncle: So do you. When you feel someone is worthy, and remind them of it, you strengthen the bond you have not just with them, but with humanity.
Nephew: Puke time. You said we need to feel appreciated. Parents are kind to their kids, but often their kids take them for granted.
Uncle: Parents find ways to feel appreciated by their kids. But you are right. Imagine how more rewarding the job of being a parent would be if their kids thanked them more often?
Nephew: You said we are kind because we like to be appreciated. Yet we still get pleasure from being kind when we don’t experience the gratitude. Putting a coin in an expired parking meter . . .
Uncle: How often does that happen? And would you do it if the person didn’t notice? Or if they took the gesture for granted?
Nephew: I think so.
Uncle: We do those things because we assume the recipient will be pleased. We imagine their pleasure. For many of us, that’s enough.
Nephew: I suppose some of us love the idea of being found out, too.
Nephew: I feel good when I give money to charity and never see the recipient benefit. And, I might give a dollar to a homeless person who won’t bother thanking me.
Uncle: Would you give so freely again if the charity’s receipt didn’t include a ‘thank you’? Would you continue to be generous to the same homeless person the next time you passed them?
Uncle: Then you’re focusing on your need to contribute, and to feel connected. Good stuff.
‘No act of kindness, however small, is wasted.’