Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How to Be Kind on Purpose

Last week, I was waiting at a traffic light when I noticed the gas tank on the car in front of me was hanging open and the gas cap was hanging down. I popped out of my car to tell the driver and ask her if I could close it for her. (I didn't want to freak her out by just wandering up to the side of the car without explaining myself, but it was raining and there was no sense in two of us getting wet.) I got back in my car just as the light changed, and thought to myself, "Well, there's my random act of kindness for the day."

Suddenly I found myself laughing. Wait a second, I thought, what was random about it? I didn't do it by accident! That's when it hit me how silly a phrase that is. Random is defined as "done without method or conscious decision." I certainly made a conscious decision, and the method I employed is "see someone in need of help, assist them."

What exactly would a 'random' act of kindness be? I wondered. I ran through a dozen ideas trying to find a way to perform an act of kindness randomly. While I can see how you could perform an act of kindness without method (for example, handing the a random person who you pass on the street a five dollar bill), I cannot see a way that you can perform an act of kindness without conscious decision. Basically, the conclusion I came to is that all kindness is, to some degree, shown with intention.

That led me to question whether you should show kindness without method. Is it wise to hand that five dollar bill to just anyone when you could employ the "see someone in need of help, assist them" method? How will you feel about the kindness you've shown if the next person you pass on the street and give that five dollars to is wearing Armani, and as you walk away you see a homeless man?

Then I started to get a little ticked about the whole idea of kindness being random. Isn't a great big problem in our society that people think kindness is optional? That they think they have no social or moral obligation to be kind? BLERGH.

Yes, this was the point at which I reined myself in. There's no point in getting bent out of shape about it, but I do believe that "random acts of kindness" is a poorly-named initiative. The goal, according to the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation website, is inspiring people to practice kindness (which sounds conscious to me) and passing it on to others (which requires method). Unsurprisingly, most of their kindness ideas would require both.

That's great, because when kindness does have both method and consciousness, two people benefit - the recipient and the person who intentionally showed kindness. Research shows it is the consciousness of having performed a kindness that influences happiness. So if that's the case - if being kind brings on happiness - it makes sense that we should be trying to make it more conscious, more purposeful, not less.

All of this is my way of encouraging you to be kind on purpose. Here's a list of ten ways to add a little kindness to your life:

1. Smile. I'll never forget the time I looked up and smiled at a woman passing me in the store and she stopped to tell me that was the first time she'd seen anyone smile all day. You just never know who may really need to see a friendly face.

2. Volunteer. I work in the nonprofit field and I can tell you with certainty, there is a charity in your neighborhood that needs your skills, whatever those skills are.

3. Give a genuine compliment. So many messages that come at us each day tear us down; combat that by building someone up.

4. Be patient with someone who needs it. You know that guy at the office who just drives you crazy because you have to explain everything twice? Or that old lady in the drug store who holds up the line trying to sort out her coupons and dig the cash out of her giant purse? How many times a day do you think someone gets irritated with them? Be the one to cut them some slack today.

5. Say thank you to everyone who assists you. On a daily basis, we're served by others. Whether it's the cashier at the grocery store, the postal carrier, the administrative assistant, the bank teller, or (yes, even) the clerk at the DMV, stop to say thanks. Your life would be harder without them.

6. Listen to someone most people ignore. There are three groups of people who typically don't get listened to: children, the elderly, and annoying people. But all of these people have the same need to be heard that you do, the same longing for a voice. Depending on your level of tolerance, choose the group you can have the most patience with and give them your ear once in a while. I've seen time and time again that it can do amazing things for their self-esteem. And believe it or not, it can help the annoying folks to be less annoying, just knowing someone respects them enough to hear them out.

7. Clean out your closets. We live in a culture of abundance. I can 100% guarantee there's something in your house you will not use or do not need. Give it to someone who does, or to a charity thrift shop.

8. Forgive someone. I'm not talking about mending fences or rebuilding broken relationships - that's a whole other level. I'm just talking about showing kindness in the moment. When someone knows they screwed up and you're about to take it out on them, skip the chastising and move on to the forgiveness. You'll save both parties a lot of stress.

9. Consider a kinder diet. Surprise! Didn't see this coming did you? Yes, unless you got here from a random link and managed to miss the name of the blog, you knew this was in the list, I'm sure. Let's be frank: most people who eat meat, dairy, and other animal products are conflicted about their diet. We all know that suffering and death are inherent in an omnivorous diet, no matter how much we'd love to overlook it. If you're not ready to give it up, at least cut back. And if you're already eating a kind or kinder diet, there are probably still ways you can improve, such as avoiding palm oil (which results in the destruction of critical habitat for endangered species) or chocolate that isn't fair-trade (as conventional cocoa is plagued by child slavery).

10. Be kind to yourself. This is probably the most overlooked form of kindness. Giving yourself  a thank you, listening to your own needs, paying yourself a compliment, or being patient with yourself is just as helpful as it is to do those things for others.

I'd love to hear from anyone who reads this about what intentional acts of kindness you practice, and the effect you've observed. Any suggestions for more ways to incorporate kindness?

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes people are elderly AND annoying. That's my niche I think. I like smiling to random people. In south Florida I was a random lunatic, here I am just a good neighbor. You also have to wave at everyone you pass in Reddick, it's kind of required. Being kind to yourself is often difficult to remember. This is a good list. I will try and make it famous.