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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

There Are No Random Acts of Kindness

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I think it is a misnomer to describe acts of kindness as random; kindness arises with an intention to "be kind" followed by an action. While the acts may be directed toward anonymous people or animals, the person's act of kindness is anything but random -- it is deliberate and directional -- non-random in nature.

I think that the non-random nature of kindness is key to its value. It reflects a conscious choice on the part of the actor, to give, to help, to share and to soothe. It seems to me that it is in the conscious choice we reveal our role in shaping our own humanity and even our evolutionary future.

The other day I saw my daughter preparing a "sack lunch" for her boyfriend who is in a rather rigorous 5 day a week 8 hour a day school program. She wrote his name on the bag -- just like I used to do for her and her brothers when they were little. It was such a sweet act of kindness, and it made me think about all those sack lunches that will be prepared in the next months as the fall school season begins.

The preparation of a sack lunch for a loved one is full of kindness; it is intentional and directional. I remember writing little notes and including small "surprises" (e.g. Hershey kiss) for my kids in their lunches when they were little. A sack lunch can carry a lot of love within it.

But there are many non-random acts of kindness around us all the time. When we meet a homeless man or woman on the street, we may offer a cup of coffee, give some change, or just wish them well with a smile and hello. That is anything but random -- we choose to place our attention on them and we choose how to respond -- with kindness or not.

Scientists are beginning to study "kindness" and how to increase it. In a study at Stanford University, researchers delivered an 11 minute "loving kindness" exercise to students and discovered that they rated strangers as "kinder" and more similar to themselves than those not given the exercise. And in a study conducted at Duke University, researchers found that people with greater "self-compassion" (a construct composed of kindness, mindfulness and a sense that one is part of the larger human condition) were much better adept at handling social rejection and the negative emotions that stem from it.

Kindness is a valuable attribute and science is showing its benefits.

In my own experiences, I notice that kindness (when consciously generated and applied) can alter my own negative emotions. An example from last week illustrates it.

My husband and I began "running" for exercise about a year ago. We worked up from a block at a time (starting, stopping) to now running with ease 4-5 miles a day. But we don't always run in sync with one another; sometimes I'm running faster than he and other times he runs faster than me. One morning, I was ahead of him on a trail when he caught up and our elbows hit; I thought he was trying to push me to the side to let him pass and had a bit of anger swell up; instead of reacting I thought perhaps he just wants to run in front for a while. So I decided to step back and run behind. There was a conscious intent on my part to act with kindness (instead of reacting with anger). Immediately, I felt my anger dissipate as I chose to let him run ahead, and after a mile or so, we ran next to each other in the end. It was a tiny example of cultivating kindness and acting from it instead of reacting from a negative emotion. The choice shifted my own mood from mildly irritated to happy in less than a block of running. The choice was intentional and the act deliberate, non-random in nature.

I think what we really want to practice are more non-random acts of kindness - directed to those we know and to those we don't know - as much possible.

I am sure it will make our lives happier and the world a kinder place.

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