The Self-Interested Case for Kindness

Why it’s in your best interest to not be an a**hole.

In theory, it’s cool to be kind. In practice… it’s not that simple.

For most of my life, I believed that if you were doing well in life you could either be cool (i.e. successful, fashionable, and well-liked) or you could be kind. I tried my hand at stark individualism while having an identity crisis in middle school. I promptly accepted my lack of coolness and decided to be kind in my pursuit of success instead.

This formidable ideology about cool and kind being mutually exclusive is something that continues to shape the antagonistic rhetoric seen online and in-person today.

One of the easiest ways to spread kindness is to make the somewhat radical assumption that people are doing their best even when it may not seem that way. By gleaning inspiration from books and podcasts by Brené Brown and the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris I was inspired to conduct an experiment. I actually found inspiration for the title of this story while listening to the audiobook of 10% Happier. I studied the impact of being kind on my own well-being by conducting a qualitative experiment just for the fun of it. The results honestly shocked me.

My Kindness Experiment

Unbeknownst to my family, friends, and girlfriend, for two weeks I made a conscious effort to adjust my behaviour to see if being kind would impact my overall well-being. I spent a week intentionally being unkind for 5 to 7 interactions a day because I didn’t want to be uncharacteristically rude all the time. For the second week, I went out of my way to be kind for 5 to 7 interactions a day.

We’ve all be quarantining with each other since I returned home from Sweden in mid-March so I wanted to spice things up. While there has been some natural tension every once in a while, I knew I could stand to be kinder to my family since I’m living here once again. In addition to trying to be unkind and kind for a week at home, I extended these efforts to my interactions at work and in public.

Week One: Be an A**hole

I was able to do this by thinking only of myself. I had an intentionally short fuse and I could tell that my parents were agitated with me by the end of each day. I would issue snarky comments to make them aware of my disdain washing the dishes. I was being objectively unkind.

I felt weighed down and guilty for the attitude I was conveying. In the short term, it felt good to blow off some steam by voicing my frustrations as they would come up. But later I would feel guilty for being an a**hole to people care about and the strangers I interact with. It was easy at the moment but the guilt and lack of empathy I had for others began to really get to me by the end of the week.

Week Two: Spread Kindness

Going into this week I assumed being kind all the time after being intentionally rude would be a breeze. Surprisingly, it was challenging at times to be kind when facing conflict. About halfway through the week, I began to feel like I was becoming a pushover and that always extending kindness to the people in my life was straining my social battery. After letting a friend in on my experiment they told me about the importance of finding a balance between kindness and boundaries to achieve an equilibrium of well-being (more on boundaries below).

I practised patience while still asking for what I wanted. This often led to a compromise that would benefit everyone involved. By setting boundaries and allowing myself to be kind while also looking out for what I want I was able to have a great week with the kind interactions coming naturally.

Reflecting on my Kindness Experiment

Before starting this experiment I hypothesized that it was easier to be unkind than it is to be kind. I assumed that kind of disregard would be somewhat liberating. I found the opposite to be true.

Practising kindness by extending gratitude, patience, and forgiveness are front-heavy tasks. They require kindness and inner strength up-front to do the right thing in a difficult situation. I found that being unkind is back-heavy for me as I would feel fine at the moment and then weighed down by guilt and loneliness later on knowing what I did was wrong.

How To Be Kind While Still Standing Up For Yourself

Sometimes it’s the line between being kind and being a pushover is thin when you don’t have boundaries in place. For school projects, I am often the one being asked to do the most work because my classmates knew I was nice enough and probably wouldn’t say no. Once I studied boundaries within more of Brené Brown’s books including Daring Greatly and Braving the Wilderness and in a book appropriately entitled Boundaries.

One of the most common reasons that people have their unkind guard up is because from a young age we’re taught to hide our vulnerabilities. Be strong and demand what you want. It should not be one or the other. You don’t have to either be cool/strong/independent or kind/compassionate/caring because they are not mutually exclusive. Some of the strongest individuals I know are both and use their kindness to stand up for others as their strength.

What Does Kindness Have to do With Self-Interest?

Want to make the world a better place? Be kind. While that may seem like a vast over-simplification it’s true that being kind is a starting point. You can be kind in the little things like holding the door open a few seconds longer, doing the dishes when your partner has a busy week at work, or something as minuscule as paying a stranger a compliment.

Life will probably never be the same as it was before the pandemic. So, it’s our responsibility to take action in shaping this new world. Take the time to spread kindness rather than jumping to hate. You will make mistakes that may lead you to crash and burn in a pit of unkind despair. But that doesn’t mean you are an unkind person because you did one unkind thing. Practice and share kindness every day with others and with yourself.

It’s in your best interest to be kind because you and the people you love deserve it. Be kind to yourself by setting boundaries with others and by forgiving yourself when you make mistakes.

The Benefits of Being Kind (According to Science)

The following information has been collected from a webpage courtesy of Dartmouth University.

  • Being kind can help you live longer! A study found that individuals aged 55+ that practised kindness through volunteering weekly had a 44% lower chance of dying early
  • Being kind can activate the pleasure centres of the brain! Emory University found that while performing kind acts the brain releases the feel-good chemical serotonin and love hormone oxytocin
  • Perpetually kind people have 23% less cortisol (the stress hormone) and age slower than the average population! This is related to the ways being kind can help us achieve a greater sense of self-actualization according to researchers at Case Western Reserve University.

She/They, LGBTQ+ advocate, bookworm, one of the top LGBTQ writers on Medium.

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