Beyond Random Acts of Kindness

12/27/2011 10:48 am ET | Updated Feb 26, 2012

It's the time of year when holiday cheer is palpable. It's also the time of year when we resolve to be better, thinner, happier, smarter, wealthier. I'm going to be nicer, not just around the holidays, but all year long.

During the holidays, there's no dearth of goodness in America. The media thrives on it, and it's tangibly the best demonstration of the media's power to uplift. Holiday specials extolling the year's heroes -- most often ordinary people doing extraordinary things -- roll across the TV like chocolates on Lucille Ball's conveyor.

But after the New Year's ball drops, we go back to same old same old, where ordinary, everyday niceness is undervalued in our culture.

Take the old adage, "Nice guys finish last." And the saying, "No good deed goes unpunished." We teach our children to be on the lookout for people who are too nice: maybe they want something from us. Or maybe they're pedophiles. Even one of our most popular expressions has a somewhat masochistic twist to it: "Kill 'em with kindness."

Did you know that more Americans say they pray than in any other nation? I am one of them. But of the 80% of Americans who pray, a significant number of those also say they pray for bad things to happen to other people. That's not nice. And on reality TV, people who in another day and age would have been shunned for their behavior, become rich and famous for not being nice.

I don't believe that meanness and disrespectful behavior are inevitable. It's a choice. Do we really want to sustain nastiness as a part of the American condition, when there's tangible research that indicates that nice people live longer and are happier and more successful?

In his book, Leading With Kindness, public television personality Bill Baker relates how executives and companies that are kind to their employees and customers are more successful. Advertising executive Linda Kaplan Thayler, in The Power of Nice, shows how she won over big accounts and difficult clients just by being nice. In a book by the same title, sports agent Ron Shapiro, who represented Cal Ripkin, Jr., and other sports greats, gives examples of how he negotiated better deals by being nice.

Digging into the research, bio-ethicist Dr. Stephen Post, in Why Good Things Happen to Good People, explains that good people unleash positive physical and psychological forces that are self-fulfilling and cause other people to want to positively affect them back. Dr. Wayne Dyer reports that endorphins, the body's happy hormones, are not only released when you do an act of kindness, but they are also released in the bodies of the affected person as well as in people who are witnessing the act. Niceness is contagious.

Maybe that's why America is so happy around the holidays: happy hormones bouncing up against each other, causing niceness after niceness throughout the land.

It baffles me why we can't sustain this atmosphere the rest of the year. If niceness is as important as weight loss, financial management and career planning, why don't we have entire industries built around it?

If America were nicer, what would our country look like?

Let's start with the basics. I'm not saying that in this America, child molestation wouldn't happen. But if it did, it would be promptly reported and prosecuted, not swept under the rug. I am grateful that perhaps now we are working on that.

Then there's that bastion of negativity: the media. Talk radio hosts would stick to the facts and avoid attacks. Bill O'Reilly's "No Spin Zone" would be empty. The Real Housewives would be, well, more real. If Amy Vanderbilt were still alive, she'd be providing free tutoring to Kim Kardashian. Wait a minute. I said I'd be nice.

Moving on to politics: politicians would present their best ideas without trashing their opponents. Voters would recoil from negative campaign ads. John Boehner and President Obama would have a beer together weekly.

Financial institutions would work out mortgages for their own good and that of their customers and the entire economy. Parents and leaders would be more supportive of teachers. Kids would stop bullying. Bosses would say "good job." Smiles, compliments and the benefit of the doubt would be abundant.

A nice America would be a more polite America. This America would elect leaders who have an interest in what's good for the country and its people instead of what's good for them; leaders who wouldn't go home with an important job left undone. This America would have a strong moral and ethical character, in which everyone in it knew what our nation stands for and what each of us as individuals stands for. We would become a nation of helpers, not of bystanders. We'd all be asking not what our country can do for us, but what we can for our country.

In this America, quarterly results would be more broadly defined to include more than just financial results but genuine contributions to the quality of life here. Even workplace happiness would be considered. Sustainable living would be defined as sustaining a flourishing and humane environment, not just being "green."

Vision impossible? Be nice. Indulge me. Dream a little. Use that American imagination that invented the lightbulb and the iPad. And remember what John Goodman in The Big Lebowski said: "If you will it, dude, it is no dream."

To see how our shared values can help us get there, go to