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Kindness: A Genuine Act of Selflessness

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

By: Tenley Spataro

As a child, when I thought of kindness, I thought of being nice, and being nice was making someone happy. It was me sharing my toys and doing simple favors such as helping my mom bring in the groceries. I would be nice when I was told to do so, unless I was in a defiant mood, and it would make me happy to hear someone tell me that I was being nice. I needed the reward of “you’re so nice” to know that my action was acknowledged. For me, those words were positive reinforcement.

With the phrase “be nice,” as children are often told, it is really telling a child to be tolerant. It is making sure that conflict is avoided and peace is kept at the expense of the child’s feelings. The child learns to be present with another person or group of people despite how he or she feels towards the other individual(s). What the child, then, learns to care about is receiving approval from others. This makes him or her feel satisfied because he or she is still liked even though they may not be happy. This tolerant attitude is what carries on to adulthood when both teenagers and adults are nice because they feel like they have to be. So, what is the problem with being nice?

Being nice can be good to make someone happy, but, as mentioned before, it can also make oneself unhappy. When a person is continuously being nice, negative emotions can be internalized and lead to lack of self-care. Others can rely on the nice individual too much if they always expect he or she to say “yes” and then that person’s own life no longer belongs to him or her but to other people for approval that they are a nice, tolerable person. That is when “being nice” can turn into being “too nice.”

While being nice is not always negative, as there are times when people do need to be nice, being kind is better. Kindness is a quality that I thought, before writing this article, was largely misunderstood; however, after generating a Google form that asked participants to define kindness based on their own understanding of the word, the thirteen participants (ages 18-27) provided clear responses.


"I would define kindness as when someone goes above and beyond for you without expecting anything in return. Kindness can be small, like opening the door for someone who is struggling in the rain, or it can be large, like people who organize GoFundMe campaigns for [those] less fortunate, raising thousands of dollars in the process. Kindness is not the same as being nice in my opinion, because being nice is about being a pleasant human being, whereas kindness is more of a radical action, but there can be overlap between being nice and being kind."

"Kindness to me is going out of your way to do something that benefits someone else while expecting nothing in return. It’s out of the goodness of your own heart, so to speak."

"Kindness is a trait that a person possesses if they’re genuinely nice, meaning that they aren’t being nice because they are forced to through

social obligation (for instance, wanting to seem like a good person for their own selfish reasons)."

"Kindness means the ability to choose to be emphatic. Being considerate and understanding of others."

'I define it as helping someone who is in need of help, not just when it’s suitable or convenient for you, but always. I don’t think that being kind is the same as being nice. Being nice, for example, is sharing your food with someone who is hungry when you have enough for yourself, but being kind is giving all the food you have and going hungry yourself."

"Kindness is a form of sincerity. It is love for love’s sake. Being nice may just be out of politeness or common courtesy, but kindness comes from a place of genuine desire to help someone."

"Kindness to me is being soft and open, giving everyone a chance and helping make things easier for people, while being polite and happy to others. I think being kind-hearted is slightly different than being nice. Anyone can be nice and do nice things like hold the door open for someone, but it takes a special place in your heart to be kind and go out of your way to make sure that the door is held open for everyone, even if you don’t necessarily have to stand there and wait."

"The quality of being friendly and considerate. I’d say they are synonymous. If I had to make a distinction between being kind and being nice, I would say that kindness is more genuine, while niceness can be faked. Kindness comes from the inside."

"Kindness is trying to make someone else feel happy or tranquil. It’s the same as nice."

"The quality of being caring, considerate, and thoughtful either through physical actions or through your words, and helping others and lending a hand without being asked. To me, being nice is more than just your personality in general and response to others. Kindness is more physically selflessly and thoughtfully thinking about and helping others."

"Kindness is more genuine than being nice, which could be fake or done with the intent of personal gain. Kindness is shown when an individual exhibits helpful behavior out of care and selflessness."

In the responses that differentiated between kindness and being nice, kindness was defined as genuine selflessness while being nice could be done with selfish intentions. Such a separation between the two words is important to keep in mind despite the understanding of “kind” and “nice” being unique to everyone. Being kind does not equate to being nice because one can be kind without being nice, and vice versa. An example of being nice but not kind is telling a white lie. A white lie is commonly understood to be a well-intentioned truth that is told to spare feelings or to avoid an unfavorable response. One example of a white lie is telling someone that they look great in an outfit or have a talent for something when, in reality, they do not.

Lying in these instances can be okay, especially if the person asking for the advice loves what he or she is wearing or is very proud of their talent. When a white lie is used to avoid a prior commitment, however, then the white lie becomes a selfish act. It becomes a temporary fix so the messenger is not disliked.

A second example where a person can be either kind or nice is the gesture of holding the door for someone. The determination in that situation is dependent on their intention (why are they holding the door?). A person who holds the door open without expecting anything in return is kind, but if that person holds the door because they want some sort of favor or do so only because they believe it is required of them, then the gesture is nice.

In being kind or nice, the ultimate question is: Is there a benefit to being kind over being nice? Interestingly, there is. Research has proven that kindness has health benefits. Kindness increases oxytocin, energy, happiness, lifespan when volunteering, pleasure, and serotonin, while decreasing pain, stress, anxiety, depression, and blood pressure. A noteworthy benefit from the list is happiness. A correlation between happiness and longevity was made by The Harvard Study of Adult Development. The study began during the Great Depression and tracked the health of 268 Harvard Sophomores, all male during that time, for clues to leading healthy and happy lives.

From studying these men and, later, their offspring, scientists discovered that close relationships keep people happy and “protect people from life’s discontents.” Arguably, the key to true happiness is kindness. A person who is kind acts with compassion and intentionally puts others first before him or herself in the smallest of ways. Kindness does not mean making others happy at your own expense like being nice can involve. Being kind means using the word “no” sometimes and knowing that, in the moment, saying “no” was the best decision to help the other person. It is making an impact on others which, consequently, makes an impact on you. The impact of kindness was another question given to the participants, whose responses are listed.


"I think that showing kindness daily affects me. Whenever I am upset, I try to make myself become a bigger person by helping someone less fortunate than me, as seen when I talked about the homeless man above. It always makes me feel good to spend money or give time to charity without expecting anything in return, and several studies show that spending money on increasing others’ quality of life rather than materialistic possessions makes you happier in the long run so I believe kindness is important and doing something nice at least once a day can’t be a bad thing."

"It’s so easy to be caught up in all of the bad things on the news lately, and feel as if there’s little good in the world. Showing kindness helps you and others to realize that the world isn’t all terrible, humans are intrinsically good, and that there’s hope out there."

"I do believe that showing daily kindness does make an impact on others. There are so many people that we can encounter every day who are dealing with their own issues, many who are not putting that aspect of their life on full display. Their minds might be flipping through various negative thoughts which can really impact their ability to function and carry out normal, everyday tasks. Although an act of kindness is unlikely to pull them out of any sort of funk, it can give them a small boost to get through the day. Showing kindness on a daily basis can also have the ability to influence others (acting by example). If someone surrounds him/herself around good people, he/she tends to head in that direction as well, and I believe that is beneficial for everyone."

"Yes, it brightens someone’s day."

"Of course, kindness is really important and can make an impact on people."

"Yes, showing kindness daily makes an impact on the people around you even though you might not see it. Showing kindness to someone else might inspire or help someone around you who wasn’t the object of your kindness but happened to see your kindness."

"Kindness is a mutual benefit. A lot of the time, making someone else happy is even more gratifying than being the recipient. We’re social animals. We all exist on this planet together, and we all need love to survive. Our world can be cold and scary, mostly because of people who take a path of cruelty instead of kindness. This is kind of a deep topic, but I think it’s interesting to think about how social media has affected kindness. On one hand, the Internet can be a fantastic tool for spreading kindness (Humans of New York, crowd sourcing, etc.) But it can also be sort of a shallow experience. I wouldn’t say that liking someone’s post counts as an act of kindness, but we do it all the time. In reality the instant gratification of an Instagram notification is much different than feeling truly appreciated and taken care of. Sometimes, it feels easier not to go out of our way to be kind to someone. There are a lot of times I wish I would have been kinder (including to myself!) But we all appreciate kindness in our lives. So maybe we should do more of it!"

"Yes, while giving an example of an act of kindness it was hard for me to think about more than one instance and it was a little wake up call. I want to be kinder. I think doing something at least once a day will make you feel good and happier, and it’ll make the people around you feel the same. Even if not a big physical act, but maybe something as small as sharing positive messages and leaving kind notes to something. There’s no room or time for negative energy so let’s just make it more positive."

"I would venture to guess that there is some sort of psychological/ physiological positive impact on the self derived from positive interactions of kindness with others. In my opinion, kindness in general makes on a better person--especially when demonstrated towards all individuals and not just a select few."

"Yes, it definitely does. When someone shows you kindness it can brighten your day."

"Yes. A [simple] smile in someone’s direction can have a profound impact. Sometimes the effects if kindness are fleeting giving only momentary relief from anger or sadness. Sometimes kindness is met with hostility, it depends on who is on the receiving end. However a random act of kindness can stick with a person and they may carry that to another person. Or the person performing the kindness can feel a satisfaction in being kind and keep performing kindly deeds out of a selfish impulse, which is better than hostility."

"An act of kindness can definitely make your day and cheer you up on a bad day, whether you are the one performing the act of kindness or receiving it."

"It certainly does, as it helps shape mindsets. Behaving cruelly towards someone can ruin their day, while showing kindness can instead make their day so much better. This can also mean sacrificing one’s own time or health, but also will allow them to have a more positive aspect on life."

Going beyond how kindness can impact oneself, the importance of kindness is that it can create the ripple effect. This has been demonstrated by the act of “paying it forward.” To “pay it forward” is to pass on an act of kindness that someone has done for you instead of paying the person back directly. A video titled “Kindness Boomerang” effectively represents this. The video starts with a construction worker checking on a skateboarder who fell on the ground which leads to a chain of kindness where the worker is, ultimately, paid back by kindness. The video was produced by a non profit organization called Life Vest Inside whose mission is “to empower and unite the world with kindness.” Through such simple actions, kindness can create and strengthen relationships. In my own life, I’ve learned that people tend to appreciate you more when you’re kind but they also understand if you’re unable to help them because of certain circumstances. Close friends, especially, know the value of time and don’t take your kindness for granted, knowing that you offer help whenever you can.

Despite being able to discuss kindness and what it is, the only way to being a kinder person is to show kindness through actions. This can be done through daily random acts of kindness. These acts can be as small as giving someone a compliment, holding the door open for another person, and leaving money in the vending machine for the next person to use. Other acts of kindness involve volunteering, giving a server a generous tip, and thanking someone with a gift. What defines an act of kindness is expecting nothing in return. The action is performed for self satisfaction, not for a reward from someone else. Being kind is not easy, as it involves the mindset of an individual to change, but one should not think they always have to be nice to make other people happy.

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