Do you want to make the world a better place? Try a little kindness. In this episode, Craig discusses the power of micro-kindness, small acts of kindness, which are small sincere and voluntary acts and attitudes, intentional or unintentional, that communicate compassion, generosity and service towards others, and that signal that we recognize the value and dignity of other people.
Practicing micro-kindness not only has benefits for others, you benefit as well. Not only will small acts of kindness help you pursue the virtue of kindness, it will also improve your well-being.
This is the first of a three-part series on the power of small things. The other episodes will discuss how small events and experiences give our life meaning, and will introduce the small wins strategy of change.
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The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Production assistant - Paul Robert
Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke. If you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.
A few years ago, I was attending a conference and chatted with a former student. We were doing the normal thing - talking about mutual friends, how things were going in her career, that sort of thing. Then she reminded me of the hard time I had given her during an oral comprehensive exam. I had kind of forgotten about the exam, but did remember pushing her pretty hard on one of her answers. As I recall, I wasn’t trying to be mean, but I clearly came off that way. She told me that the experience had helped her deal more kindly with her doctoral students. Although she was much too kind to put it this way, essentially she was telling me that my being kind of a jerk to her taught her to not be a jerk to her students. We had a nice laugh, but I was struck by the fact that the incident that I had completely forgotten about clearly had a big impact on her. The incident was pretty minor for me, but was huge for her.
Here’s another quick story that puts me in a better light. Many years ago, I was having “breakfast with the moms.” (I took my mother and my then mother-in-law to breakfast virtually every Friday morning.) As I went to pay the bill the server told me that someone had already paid it. When I asked who, she said that it wasn’t a regular customer, but that the guy had called her over and asked, “Can I have that table’s check? A long time ago that man helped me out when I really needed it, and I want to repay the favor.” This surprised me since I had scanned the restaurant earlier to see if anyone I knew was there and hadn’t recognized anyone. To this day, I have no idea who paid our bill and no idea of what I did to help him.
Let’s look at how these two incidents are similar. In both, the triggering event was pretty minor to me, almost to the point of being meaningless. However, to the other parties these were significant, memorable events. The other important similarity is that there was a direct correlation between the extent of kindness I practiced and the effect on the other person. My actions were unkind in the first incident and kind in the second. My unkindness led to the other person viewing the first incident negatively, and in the second case the person viewed the incident positively. (Fortunately, my former student was able to build something good from the negative encounter, to her credit.)
So, small things can make a big difference, which means small things can be, and often are, important. In the next few episodes, I want to explore the power of small things. In this episode, I’ll talk about small acts of kindness, which I call micro-kindnesses. In the next two episodes I’ll discuss how the small, often overlooked aspects of our lives are what give life meaning. I’ll follow this with an episode on something called the small wins strategy.
Let’s talk about kindness. Most of the time, it costs you nothing to be kind, certainly kindness almost never has a substantive cost. What does it cost you to smile at a service worker, or to let someone merge into your lane? The cost to you is so small as to be meaningless. But even tiny acts of kindness pay dividends, which I’ll discuss in more detail in a moment. There are countless opportunities each day to practice small kindness, or micro-kindness. What do I mean by micro-kindness? Well, probably what you would have guessed. By micro-kindness I mean sincere and voluntary acts and attitudes, intentional or unintentional, that communicate compassion, generosity and service towards others. OK, maybe that’s a longer definition than what you would have guessed, but I’ll bet you were on the same track. By the way, I’m not the first person to use the term micro-kindness, but here I give my own take on the idea.
It seems to me that there are two ways that micro-kindness can manifest (maybe three if we stretch my definition a bit). The first and most obvious form comes from acts that express our kindness. These are the small, simple things that I talked about earlier. The ways in which you can express small kindnesses are innumerable, stepping aside when walking down a crowded sidewalk, an expression of gratitude such as saying “thank you”, using someone’s name, waving at a neighbor, smiling at a stranger (but not in a creepy way), not staring at your phone when talking with someone, not interrupting. All of these are tiny, almost effortless acts that communicate to others that you value other people. Think about how you feel when someone compliments your tie or your shoes, or lets you merge lanes. It feels pretty good, doesn’t it? So why not spread that feeling?
You might not realize it, but every time you perform a micro-kindness, you make the world a better place. When economics professors teach introductory econ courses, they often use the phrase ceteris paribus, which roughly means “all other things being equal.” Economic effects are complex, so professors like to focus on one thing at a time by examining how changing that one thing affects the economy, but keeping everything else static. Although this is a huge simplification of how economies work, it’s a useful way to think. We can apply the same thinking to kindness. Suppose that you practice some little kindness. Ceteris paribus, you’ve made the world a better place. Of course, the world never stays the same, but regardless of what happens, the world is still better because of your small act. Since micro-kindnesses cost you virtually nothing, even a tiny change in the world is a net benefit. Economists call this a Pareto improvement -- someone is better off without you being worse off.
We can extend the idea of micro-kindness to our thoughts. Every day we interpret the actions of others. These interpretations often include our assessment of others’ motivations. Social psychologists call this attribution -- to what do we attribute the actions of others? We can practice micro-kindness in our attributions. Suppose, for example, that the barista at your local coffee shop is a bit curt and unfriendly. You don’t really know the cause of this attitude, it could be due to worry over a sick child, or it could be due to the barista actually being an as… a jerk. Why not make the kind attribution … that there’s something going on in the barista’s life that has them stressed and distracted? We’ve certainly all been there, and probably acted in similar ways occasionally. Your internal micro-kindness will not only keep you from matching the barista’s unkind attitude with your own, which will just escalate things and make you irritated, your kindness might, in some small way, help ease whatever trouble the barista might be feeling. As Psalms 94:19 says, “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” Maybe you can be a small consolation to the barista. If not, well, you’ve been the sort of person you want to be, and that’s a significant reward for your kindness.
Speaking of rewards, you’ll never know the full effects of your little kindnesses. The ripple effect is real. Your small kindness may lead the object of your kind act to act similarly. (There’s actually a thing called emotional contagion, which means that our emotions have a direct effect on the emotions of others. I’ll do an episode on that sometime soon.) Kindness can be contagious. So, your little micro-kindness can spread from person to person in a far reaching ripple of kind acts. Or maybe not. Maybe you’ll just have a tiny effect on one person. But, for something that costs you virtually nothing, that’s enough. Even without that effect, you’ve still lived according to the virtue of kindness, and, as a result, have flourished. There’s actually academic research to support the positive effects of performing acts of kindness on well-being; performing acts of kindness improves the well-being of the person performing the act. So, any way you look at it, small acts of kindness are good for the world, and good for you.
Earlier I said that there are three effects of micro-kindness if you stretch my definition. The third is self micro-kindness. As the saying goes, we're often our own worst critic. Many of us, myself included, and perhaps including you, have a tendency to be pretty hard on ourselves. Why not practice micro-kindness on yourself? This is a little bit tricky. To grow, and to flourish, you need to reflect openly and honestly on your actions and their consequences. So, you do want to make accurate causal attributions. But, you don’t have to be a jerk to yourself. You can be self-forgiving, and practice self-compassion. When your self-talk starts to be unkind, stop, and remember the power of kindness. If you make a mistake, analyze what led to that mistake so that you can avoid it in the future. But don’t beat yourself up over it. Keep your focus on improving and who you are and who will be, not on who you were. The past is past. Reflect, make adjustments and move on.
Before moving on to the three things you can do this week to practice micro-kindness, I want to remind you about Aristotle’s practice-habit-being process of flourishing, which I discussed in detail in the last episode. If you consciously practice kindness, large and small, then over time, kindness will become a habit, and finally you will simply be a kind person.
On to the three things …
First, each day for the next week, find some opportunity to consciously practice micro-kindness. I tried this on a trip a few years ago. It was a long, grueling trip but during the trip, I made it a point to be kinder and more considerate to the service workers I met. Service workers often have really tough jobs, so I resolved to make their jobs just a little better. These were tiny things, asking the taxi driver how his day had been, smiling and using the hotel desk clerk’s name when thanking her. These were all tiny, almost effortless acts. But they brought results.
That brings us to number two: When performing your micro-kindnesses, pay attention to the other person’s reaction. I did this in my little kindness experiment. When I consciously acted kindly, I noticed the other people brightening just a little. The reactions were nothing big, just a smile or a brightening in their eyes. The effects of your kindness may be small, but if you pay attention, you’ll notice them. These small differences act as confirmation of your effect on the world, and provide a sort of incentive to keep acting kindly.
Third, when you feel yourself engaging in critical self-talk, remember that being kind also extends to self-kindness. Move from negative self-talk to evaluative, growth-oriented self-talk. Keep who you want to be in sharp focus and emphasize the growth opportunity in making mistakes. Analyze the triggers that caused you to act in an unproductive or unvirtuous way, resolve to act differently in the future.
Every day we’re faced with countless opportunities to act kindly, or to be a jerk. Choose the kindness route. Remember, it is within your power to make the world a better place.
I’ll leave you with a quote from me: “If you want to make the world a better place, be a better person.”
Until next time. Be well my friends …
I produce Live Well And Flourish because of my dedication to helping others live excellent lives. I don't accept sponsorships and I don't want your money. The only thing I want is to help you and others flourish. If you've received some value from this episode, please share it with someone that might also benefit from listening. The best way to do that is to direct them to livewellandflourish.com. Until next time.