Kill ‘Em with Kindness

Kindness is a top strength of mine and I enjoy doing things for others.  In fact I would say I need to do kind things for others to keep from being unhappy.  Because I frequently adapt to doing things for others, I have a tendency to do more things and give more frequent gifts in order to keep my ‘kindness’ identity consistent.  This makes me wonder:  can you bolster a strength that is already ranked 2nd of 24?  Is it easier to increase a strength that you already have rather than a lesser strength or weakness?  Will it make you appreciably happier to work on something that is already a strength?  I was sure before beginning this experiment that I knew the answers to these questions.  I found my answers changing and becoming more nuanced as the exercise drew to a close.

A Word about Kindness

Included in the VIA Classification under Strengths of Humanity – kindness involves “positive traits manifest in caring relationships with others, what Taylor et al. (2000) described as dispositions to tend and befriend” (Peterson, 2006, p. 143).   The strengths of humanity are brought to bear in one-to-one relationships and are interpersonal.  Kindness, as defined by Peterson, is:  “doing favors and good deeds for others; helping them; taking care of them” (2006, p. 143).

Kindness, in addition to being ubiquitous, also seems to be a frequently attainable signature strength.  It is among the most commonly endorsed strengths, in 54 countries, “from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe” (Peterson, 2006, p. 153).  Kindness is also the most common signature strength in the United States and it is consistent across gender, age, education (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2006).  A study done analyzing signature strengths that aid in recovery from physical illness found that along with bravery and humor, kindness was a key factor (Peterson, Park & Seligman, 2006).  After extensive research on signature strengths, Peterson tells us that character strengths that “orient us toward others in turn make us happy” (Peterson, 2006, p. 155).

Lenten Kindness

My task was to pick one of my top five signature strengths and implement a strategy to increase it.  I identified with and chose kindness.  Ever the optimist, I did not think that boosting this strength would be difficult.  I disagreed with the notion that working on a relative weakness would mean more progress because there is a further distance to travel.  Rather, I thought that working on something I enjoyed doing would yield better results.  And ever the multi-tasker, I decided to combine this assignment with my Lenten obligation.

For Lent, Catholics are supposed to give up meat on Fridays, fast on the holy days and give something up that we enjoy during the 40 days of Lent that mirror the 40 days that Jesus was fasting in the desert in order to be better Catholics.  I had heard of people taking on something to do during Lent instead of giving something up, but to me that seemed weak.  How can volunteering at a hospital compare with suffering through sugar withdrawal?  This year, however, I realized that this was a specific example of ‘red cape/green cape’ thinking (Pawelski, personal communication, September 5, 2008).  So, I decided that practicing acts of kindness would fulfill this assignment and my Lenten obligation at the same time.

I realized that my Lenten experiment was the class exercise but in a different context.  By choosing to do acts of kindness (one of my top strengths) over giving up chocolate (self-regulation, my 24th strength) I was mirroring the assignment.  The objectives of the two exercises are different, however.  The purpose of Lent is to make you more resilient because of the self-imposed suffering.  The purpose of the class assignment was to see if kindness could be bolstered and if you enjoyed the exercise.

Not So Random Acts of Kindness

I tracked my ‘kind acts’ almost daily and attempted to make note of the virtue occasions that I might have missed (Franklin, 1791).  I also decided to test the results of the experiment by taking my positivity ratio frequently ( and to retake the VIA, the PANAS, and the SWLS at the end of the session.  As research supports, I found that when I was in a positive mood, I was much more willing to help others regardless of being assigned the task of bolstering my strength (Carlson, Charlin & Miller, 1988 as cited in Peterson & Seligman, 2004).  Also consistent with the research, I found that a positive mood made me more likely to help when “giving help (was) pleasant and help (did) not require sustained effort” (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 332).

If we are to tease apart kindness and add generosity and compassion – a.k.a. “kindness on steroids” (Peterson, personal communication, March 29, 2009), to the list of distinctions, most of my ‘acts’ fell under kindness.  But the most rewarding fell under compassion and generosity.  I did many small acts including baking for other people, adjusting my schedule to accommodate others and writing thank you notes.  My inconsistent Loving-kindness meditations may have oriented me to have greater compassion for others, and my husband assisted in encouraging my generosity.

One highlight that brought the largest degree of well-being was the multiple things I did for my brother’s wedding.  Research supports the idea that doing a group of kind things all in one day versus spread out, leads to higher levels of well-being (Lyubomirsky, 2008).  The most satisfying of those things was organizing the guests to send me positive stories about my brother and his fiancée and then putting them into an elaborate guest book that they can savor for weeks and months to come.  And in a rare moment of self-restraint, I made a wedding toast that was only positive and touching, using those stories, and did not make any jokes in which I would have been gratified with laughs and applause.

Interestingly, the acts that were more difficult were also more gratifying in the end.  The activities around the wedding took an enormous amount of work and were the most gratifying of the entire exercise.  These activities that take the most work are frequently the opportunities I miss.  The activities that revolve around generosity are also ones that I miss.  Ironically I was thinking about this assignment in church and when the collection basket came around I chose to give the pocket of change rather than the $20 in my wallet.

Awareness and Guilt

Working on this assignment gave me more awareness that I was doing acts of kindness.   As research has shown, I found that monitoring those acts made me happier and made me think of myself as a kind person (Otake, Shimai, Tanaka-Matsumi, Otsui. and Fredrickson, (2006).  A number of our readings from last semester support this view.  Csikszentmihalyi focuses on the mechanics of consciousness and controlling the conscious mind in pursuit of happiness (1990).  William James equates attention and effort and both maintain that we must focus on that attention to effort (i.e. action) in order to achieve happiness (1892).  Baumeister, Gailliot, DeWall and Oaten found scientific evidence to support James’ theories that habit formation can be reinforced with practice (2006).  Ben Franklin’s self-examination of virtues also supports the need for practice.  Through practice, we develop self-efficacy.  Maddox believes self-efficacy is developed through symbolic thought and capacity for self-reflection (2002).  Writing this paper was an opportunity for self-reflection.  Another moment of self-reflection came with the gratitude expressed from the recipient of my kindness.  Rightly or wrongly, I discovered that when my kindness was acknowledged by another person, it seemed more valid.

Perhaps because I measure kindness in some degree by how it is received, I found there were a number of things I did out of guilt, i.e. extrinsic motivation (Brown & Ryan, 2004).  Even though I knew I should be doing school work I grumbled as I baked in my kitchen for my friends who were coming over.  I would feel guilty if they came and I hadn’t baked anything.  And when I picked up the tab at various locations for my future sister-in-law’s shower it was out of guilt for not tipping the previous barman enough when another guest had to pay him for me.  Does guilt or extrinsically-motivated kindness still count?  While the phrase to “kill with kindness” tends to refer to winning someone over with kindness who might otherwise be a grouch, it could also refer to the dark side of kindness.  Then again, it could refer to killing oneself with trying to be kind.

How Did Kindness Fare?

I took the test on for almost two weeks but the website came up with ‘not enough data to calculate’ so I am unsure how practicing kindness added to my wellbeing.  Interestingly, when I retook the VIA Classification of Signature Strengths kindness actually moved down from 2nd to 4th.  When I retook the PANAS my score went down slightly.  When I took the SWLS my score went up by one point.  In addition, I asked my husband if he thought I was happier during this period and he said he wasn’t sure that he could tell a difference.  Surprisingly, almost all of the measures that I chose did not support a boost in kindness or happiness.

If I am honest, there was a flaw in the design of the experiment.  I could have incorporated using my signature strength in new ways, which has been proven to be effective (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005).  In addition, while my happiness ranking on the VIA decreased, I did have an addition to my top five:  Capacity to Love and Be Loved.  Since this is a sister strength to kindness, perhaps my experiment was successful to a certain degree while not a complete success.

I realized that while I enjoy doing things for others, the distance is much shorter when moving my 2nd strength of kindness up to 1st than moving self regulation (my 24th) up to, say, 12th.  The math simply doesn’t support the amount of growth that is possible.  Even my creativity was tapped when thinking of new ways to be kind.  Then I ran the risk of falling into the ‘more is better’ trap and crossing over to the dark side of kindness.  I ran the risk of feeling a little guilty about not doing enough because of my own habituation to kind acts.  I was happy doing things for others, but would I have been happier if I had chosen to give up chocolate?  Maybe I’ll find out next Lent.  (Although that would definitely decrease the happiness of my husband.)

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About Shannon Polly, MAPP

Shannon M. Polly is a corporate communications trainer, facilitator and speaker and founder of Shannon Polly & Associates, a leadership development company in downtown D.C. Shannon works with executives, managers and employees of Fortune 500 companies in two areas: executive presence/presentation skills (based on over a decade of experience as a professional actor/singer in New York) and positive psychology. Shannon is one the first 100 people in the world who have received her Master in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) degree from the University of Pennsylvania under Dr. Martin Seligman. She also holds a graduate degree from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in classical acting and a B.A. with honors from Yale University. She also holds a coaching certificate from the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program.

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