Before we further explore kindness, we must first agree on what kindness is. Various dictionaries define kindness with words like “warmhearted”, “compassionate” and “goodness.” Yet these definitions are lacking because warmhearted, compassionate and good people – by definition, must also do kind things. So clearly these descriptions do not equate with kindness. Other words used in dictionaries include magnanimity, understanding, and charitable. But again, while these words may describe many kind people they still fail to define kindness itself. So let’s look a little further.
In the 4th century BC, Aristotle defined kindness in his Treatise on Rhetoric as “helpfulness towards some one in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped”.
In this definition we get the sense that empathy must play a role, but only a sense. The main thrust of Aristotle’s definition is that kindness is non-reciprocal. That is, there is no advantage given to the person performing the kind act. Consequently I find this definition only partially satisfying.
The great American psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, a leading proponent of the positive psychology movement, offers another definition of kindness. In the field of positive psychology, researchers work to identify strengths in people and to help them become even more resilient and mentally stronger. Dr. Seligman and his counterpart Dr. Christopher Peterson wrote the definitive book in psychology on character strengths and virtues (titled appropriately: Character Strengths & Virtues). They use the following definition for kindness:
“Kindness, generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, and altruistic love are a network of closely related terms indicating a common orientation of the self toward the other. This orientation can be contrasted with solipsism, in which the self relates to others only insofar as they contribute to his or her agenda and are therefore considered useful. Kindness and altruistic love require the assertion of a common humanity in which others are worthy of attention and affirmation for no utilitarian reasons but for their own sake. The affective or emotional ground of such kindness distinguishes it from a merely dutiful or principle-based respect for other persons. Such affective states are expected to give rise to helping behaviors that are not based on an assurance of reciprocity, reputational gain, or any other benefits to self, although such benefits may emerge and need not be resisted.”
This is a definition that, like Aristotle’s, requires there be no expectation of reciprocity. To Aristotle’s definition the psychologists added the requirement of an “affective or emotional” basis arising from the assertion of a common humanity that requires kindness for no other reason than another’s membership in the human race. This “affective or emotional” basis is often described as empathy.
Here a brief explanation of the difference between empathy and compassion may be useful as they are often confused. One can have compassion for another without feeling empathy. How is this? Compassion is feeling sorry for what another may be experiencing, whereas empathy is being able to understand what another person is experiencing in their mind. In other words, you empathize with another’s feelings, (i.e. can understand what emotions they are going through and feel that emotion), while compassion is simply feeling sorry about their situation. This is a slight difference in meaning, but an important one. Empathy requires the sharing of a feeling with someone, compassion doesn’t. Empathy requires trying to imagine someone else’s emotions in a situation as well as experiencing strong feelings for that person. Compassion involves merely feeling sympathetic towards someone without necessarily understanding or sharing that person’s feelings.
The definition of kindness I will use here is that kindness is an act (behavior) designed to help put others at ease, to show hospitality or to respond to a need, and is done out of concern for others. Kindness is not done primarily, or even at all, for secondary gain, but with the intent of assisting others. This is important because while some kind acts are done selflessly, occasionally kind acts are done with an ulterior motive. This latter instance is not actual kindness but manipulation. On the other hand, performing kind acts almost always make the one performing the kind act feel better – this type of act would still qualify as kindness even though the one who performed the act received a reward. In this case the reward was incidental to the kindness rather than the incentive to perform the kind act. What I am suggesting is that kindness is not only a behavior but also intent. If the motivator for a kind act was compassion, empathy and/or concern for others, then the behavior is called kindness. If the motivator for the act was to garner praise or some secondary gain (such as when a politician or company does a public good act for mere public relations purposes), then this is not kindness.
Kind acts proceed from concern for others and often mean the one who performs the kind act must delay or forgo something they desire. Indeed most of us count another person as very noble when they quietly forgo or give up something in order to help another.
Kindness starts as a thought but ends as an action. Acting kindly toward others is perhaps the only real way we let people know we care about them and about their happiness. Without action, kindness does not exist. This is important because one can experience empathy or compassion for another person yet not act to aid them. Technically, one is not a kind person merely because you care about other’s suffering unless your concern causes you to come to that person’s aid. What this means is that, in order to be a kind person, one must regularly practice kind acts. When was the last time you practiced an act of kindness?
I recommend practicing kindness daily, many times a day – otherwise we are just people who value kindness but who are not necessarily kind people. Kindness is just too important to society to be an occasional practice. Are you only occasionally kind or are you kind every day?
Kind people, by definition, act kind even when they do not feel kind.