Myth: To be happy we need to be kind.

‘Will being kind make us happy?’

It’s easy to see why the happiness gurus link kindness with happiness – when we perform an act of kindness we usually feel good. But let’s say you are kind to someone but the recipient responds by being rude and ungrateful. They laugh and call you a schmuck. Are you going to feel happy? No, of course you won’t. More likely, you will feel hurt and betrayed. The point: it’s not our act of kindness which prompts us to be happy – it’s being appreciated for it. When we feel appreciated we help satisfy the following long-term, ongoing innate needs:
– the need to contribute ‘to the tribe’, and
– the need to feel valued for our contribution, and
– the need to feel connected with one another – our deep need to belong.
Being kind – and being appreciated for that act of kindness – can be be one quick ‘sugar hit’ to satisfy all three innate needs.

‘There you go! The happiness experts are right.  There is a link between being happy and being kind.’

But being kind is not the only way to satisfy those three needs. There are other ways to satisfy them.

When the happiness gurus tell us happiness comes from being kind to one another, they miss the point. I would like them to focus on helping us find ways to contribute ‘to the tribe’, feel valued by it, and feel connected with one another. That’s a deeper, more comprehensive approach. Being kind to someone is just one quick-hit way of satisfying those needs, and it’s not always effective.

Yes, for most of us, acting kindly (and being appreciated for it) is a good way to satisfy those three innate needs, but some people gain little or no benefit from being kind (which explains why some people aren’t kind), so telling them to perform acts of kindness is futile. If those people can find other ways to satisfy those innate needs they can still find core happiness.

In short, being kind is not a key to core happiness, but it is one popular way to help satisfy the three innate needs which will make us happy: our need to contribute, our need to feel valued, and our ‘deep need to belong’.

So, if you enjoy performing acts of kindness, go for it. But 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.’
The example from John-Paul Flintoff,’s book ‘How to Change the World’.

‘Be kind to someone you love. Then to people you know. Then to people you don’t know. Then to people you don’t like!’

Q. ‘I still feel good when I am not appreciated. I give money to charity and never see the recipient benefit, and I might give a few dollars to a homeless person who doesn’t bother thanking me.’
When you give to a charity you at least satisfy your need to contribute. And, would you give so freely again if the receipt didn’t include a ‘thank you’? As for the homeless person not bothering to thank you, will you continue to be generous to the same person?
Then you’re focusing on your need to contribute, and feel connected. Good stuff.

 Q. ‘So, being kind is not a key to core happiness. We need to satisfy our need to contribute, to feel valued, and to feel connected? And being kind can be a good way to satisfy those needs, but it’s not the only way?’
Correct. Eating an orange is not necessary for our diet, but Vitamin C is necessary, and eating an orange is a great way to get that Vitamin C. But it’s not the only way.
‘If someone is allergic to oranges, you want them to know that it’s not oranges they need, but Vitamin C, and that there are other ways to get that Vitamin C.’

Q. ‘Studies prove that there is a link between happiness and being kind.’
No shock there. If you’re happy you’re more likely to be kind. And, if you are kind you are likely to be appreciated, which will help satisfy the three innate needs.
Studies should look at the relationship between happiness and how much a person feels appreciated. That would be more accurate, and more revealing.

Q. ‘Wouldn’t everyone feel valued being kind?’
Not all voluntary workers cartwheel for joy when a new day dawns. If a voluntary worker does not receive some positive feedback for the work they do they can become drained. Fortunately, a little appreciation now and then can go a long way.
Consider Mother Theresa, the nun helping the homeless in Calcutta: she spent a good chunk of her life being kind, and from what I’ve heard she was a cranky woman writing angry letters to God. Her efforts may have been taken for granted, and possibly her ‘cup was empty’. It is okay to be kind, but we also need to be nurtured.

 Q. ‘Is that why some people, such as hardened criminals, are so unkind? They have lost the capacity to contribute, and feel valued? And feel connected?’
Could be. Hardened people may have given up on the idea that they could be valued 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.
‘Maybe that’s why they wear their crime as a badge of honour, to give themselves value?’
I don’t know.
‘Maybe our prison system could focus on helping the inmates feel they are contributing, and feel valued? 
We might see a dramatic change in them! But with prisons run by private, profit making companies, that’s unlikely.

Q. ‘But we still get pleasure from being kind even when we don’t experience the recipient’s gratitude. Putting a coin in an expired parking meter . . .’
How often does that happen? And would we do it if the person didn’t notice? Or if they took the gesture for granted?
We do those things because we assume the recipient will be pleased; we imagine their pleasure. For many of us, that’s enough.
‘I suppose some of us love the idea of being found out, too.’

 Q. Parents are always performing acts of kindness for their kids, but are usually taken for granted.
Parents find ways to feel appreciated by their kids, but you’re right. Imagine how much more rewarding the job of being a parent would be if kids thanked their parents more often?

Q. ‘If being kind can help us feel valued, why aren’t we kind more often?’

  • Some people have poor self-esteem, and don’t allow themselves to feel valued. So they gain no benefit by being kind.
  • Some people might lack empathy, so can’t fathom how pleased the recipient of a kind act will be.
  • Some people might feel insecure. Being kind can set you up for rejection or being taken for granted. It requires you to expose a vulnerability, and some people aren’t ready for that. (If you recognise that vulnerability in yourself, move through it.)

However, if someone can’t feel valued by being kind, they can feel valued in other ways: From the work they do, from their loved ones, from . . .

Q. ‘If we are kind, can we expect something in return?’
No, give your favour freely. Otherwise it’s a transaction. If you want it to be a transaction inform the other person of their obligations to you before you do them the ‘favour’.

Further, if you require compensation you will diminish the other person’s appreciation, which will in turn diminish your opportunity to feel that you’re ‘contributing’, valued, and connected.
It’s when we give freely we feel most exhilarated.

Q. ‘You’re not suggesting that there is no point in being kind, are you?’
Not at all. We need to satisfy the aforementioned innate needs, and for many of us, being kind is a great way to do just that. Plus, small acts of kindness can foster compassion, in ourselves and in the recipient. Also, one key to core happiness is to be generous, and being kind is a generous act of the spirit.

Q. ‘Being unkind can be liberating.’
In what way?
‘It indicates that I don’t fear people’s disapproval. I am not burdened by guilt. Each time I am unkind I liberate myself more, and even feel pleasure in the little ‘hits’ of unkindness. When I’m being unkind I’m feeling powerful.’
I don’t know what to make of that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s