Many writers have commented on the happiness-bestowing properties of kindness. Isen and Levin (1972) claimed that kindness was the key to happiness. Their research provides an empirical test of these assertions. Kindness can take the form of persistent engagement in helping people or creating positive social change that does not involve great danger. It can consist of small, repeated acts that bring benefit to others, like kindness by a neighbor or relative toward a child who is neglected or badly treated at home, kindness that can help the child develop normally and even flourish in spite of adversity. We can see kindness everywhere. A mother pays loving attention to a child. A father takes time off work to take his child to the first day of kindergarten. A popular girl spends time with a new, somewhat awkward girl in class, saving her from unkind behavior by classmates.
Countries send food to other countries wracked by famine; give refuge to people who are fleeing from political repression; take action against the persecution of a minority at home or in other countries; intervene to stop violence. These and a million other acts of kindness, ranging from small to extreme, requiring little effort and sacrifice or involving great sacrifice or extreme danger, are all vital for good society. Parental kindness, especially when combined with sensitivity in perceiving and responding to the child’s needs, has important consequences. The child experiences the parents as loving and kind, as trustworthy and benevolent. Since interaction with parents is usually the young child’s primary experience of people, these feelings will generalize to others. The parents’ caring and kindness lead the child to experience himself or herself positively, to the evolution of positive self-esteem. Warmth makes the child feel safe, so that he or she can initiate new behaviors and experiment in the world without fear of punishment. Reciprocity is perhaps the most basic law of human relationships: people return kindness and are unlikely to harm someone who has benefited them. We will best gain others’ kindness, cooperation, trust, and affection if we impress them with our caring and unselfish actions and intentions.
Kindness does have a demonstration effect. It reminds us—those who hear about it—of the importance of good. In this sense it reaffirms a specific value that we cherish deeply as a people. It also reinforces a more general belief in the possibility of goodness. Helping others may not lead to a better society, but it allows us to envision a better society. A positive orientation to other people contributes to harmonious, satisfying interpersonal relationships and, thereby, to personal satisfaction and happiness. We must not forget that a nation must be full of kind people before it can be a great nation. Kindness leads to greatness.
Isen, A. M., & Levin, P. F. “The effect of feeling good on helping: Cookies and kindness.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21, 1972.