Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.
Recently a friend recommended I read the children’s book, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, about the highs and lows of a boy with a severe facial disfigurement as he attends middle school for the first time. It’s a brilliant book, very thought provoking on the nature of resilience and friendship. It explores character strengths, especially courage and kindness, although it references many others too. It deserves all the accolades it has received.
Many passages, lines and even phrases stick in my memory. This quotation in the book got me thinking about writing this piece:
“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind” ~ Dr Wayne W Dyer
Random Acts of Kindness (RAK)
Kindness is a constantly popular topic in positive psychology, and it’s been in the news a lot recently too, particularly the Random Acts variety. One reason is as an antidote to the YouTube NekNominate craze, in which participants film themselves drinking a pint of beer or other alcoholic drink in one go, upload it to the web, and then dare two other people to do the same within 24 hours.
The UK’s Daily Telegraph reported how the South African Brent Lindeque decided not to bow to the pressure of NekNominate and started his own online challenge instead by filming himself handing out food and drink to people in need then nominating two friends to do their own acts of kindness. Brent (who, it has to be said, runs a brand marketing company so knows a thing or two about product placement and tipping points!) said he hoped the video would inspire everyone to do good for others.Looking online to see what other random acts I could find I came across this video of Devon Stanton handing out chocolates to people queuing in traffic at a busy highway junction.
What’s really interesting about this clip is the reactions of the drivers receiving his free gift. Most of us would expect them to be positive and fortunately most are (at least, the ones caught on film!) So there are drivers who are genuinely pleased or grateful to be given a chocolate, and /or want to reciprocate by giving Devon a donation.
Then there’s the driver who refuses to take a chocolate. He’s already eating his breakfast in the car. But at the same time he looks suspicious, as if he believes there has to be a catch to the offer. Another driver reacts in the opposite way, immediately taking advantage of the freebie by asking for more than one, then giving a rather embarrassed look at the camera. Others seem less positive towards Devon’s random act of kindness. One driver doesn’t want to wind down the window at all, gesturing wildly in the car that she has nothing to give. “No, this is for you!”, says Devon, emphatically thrusting the chocolate bar at the car window, so the driver winds it down a few inches. As soon as he says he’s not asking for payment, the driver readily puts her hand out to take the chocolate. The passenger in another car looks genuinely puzzled. Why would some guy stand on the corner of a busy junction during morning rush hour handing out free chocolate to strangers? This is not normal behavior!It’s been suggested that it may be the randomness of acts of kindness which unsettles people. For most of us randomness just doesn’t make sense. Which means that acts of kindness might be more appreciated when they’re done in context, when the receiver can understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. Or perhaps they’ll appreciate it more when they’ve asked for the help that you’re giving. But that’s another story.
Devon Stanton wore a hand-made sign, mentioning NekNominate, but if you hadn’t heard of it, you’d be none the wiser. A female driver asks how her taking the free chocolate bar is helping him. Saying that he hoped she might be inspired to pay it forward and do a kind deed for others obviously would have spoiled the effect.
What this video aptly illustrates is that doing RAKs may make you feel great, but they may not always get the positive and upbeat response you’d expect and may not be appreciated by the recipient, even if well intended. That’s a tough one for positive psychology to crack.
A Way of Life
Towards the end of Wonder, the head teacher, Mr Tushman, gives a speech at the graduation ceremony. He quotes from The Little White Bird by J.M. Barrie:
But somehow, being non-randomly kind (being kind on the spur of the moment just because that’s what you do, not because you’ve got a RAKnomination and have thought about it) doesn’t have the same kudos.
“Shall we make a new rule of life…always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?” Here Mr Tushman looked up at the audience. “Kinder than is necessary”, he repeated. “What a marvelous line, isn’t it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed. Why I love that line, that concept, is that it reminds me that we carry with us, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind, but the very choice of kindness.”
I have a friend, Nancy, whose top VIA strength is kindness. She goes out of her way to help others in small ways and large. Last year she painted the hall and stairs woodwork for a friend who hadn’t done it before the carpet was due to be fitted. The friend could have done it or paid a handyman, but Nancy stepped in.
My stepfather Chris also offers to help anyone and everyone, much to my mother’s annoyance. I can’t imagine either of them making the front pages of the Daily Telegraph. “Woman is kind to friend!” or “Grandfather helps his neighbor!” just wouldn’t grab the headlines. Random acts of kindness are more appealing and perhaps more inspiring than the run-of-the-mill everyday type of kindness. It’s interesting to contemplate why this might be so.
I don’t want to dismiss or detract from all the kind deeds that people are randomly doing for strangers but we should take a moment to celebrate all the non-randomly kind people, the people like Nancy and Chris, who are thoughtful and helpful to others simply because that’s who they are.
Which brings me to another fabulous quotation from Wonder:
“Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life.”
So why not give a standing ovation now to all the non-randomly kind people in your life?
Palacio, R.J. (2012). Wonder. London. Random House.
Barrie, J.M. (1926). The Little White Bird. London. Hodder Stoughton.
Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M. & Schkade, D. (2005) Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111-131.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.