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Gracious and Kind in the 21st Century

written by Yee-Ming Tan 25 March 2010

Yee-Ming Tan, MAPP, provides executive coaching services and leadership development training to senior executives. Recent clients include: Cathay Pacific, Goldman Sachs, and Microsoft. Yee-Ming also publishes a series of tools, RippleCards, for people who choose to cultivate greater well-being in their lives.

Her articles are here.

On a busy street in central Hong Kong, a car pulled out of a building as I walked past it. The driver stopped the car and let me pass. He looked at me, smiled, and gestured for me to go first. “What a gracious man!” I thought to myself. I know what he did was just an act of common courtesy but at that moment, I was touched by his graciousness. I perked up that instant and was in a good mood for the rest of the day. An act of grace lasting no more than 10 seconds from a stranger can turn my so-so day into a great one. Surely this must be one of the most economical way to generate positive emotions in ourselves and other people!

Where Is Kindness in the Modern World?

How often do we notice such act of kindness in our daily life? Are we too busy to notice them? Or perhaps there are so few such acts now in our busy multi-tasking lifestyles? Do we give up seats for the needy on buses or trains? Do we help other people put away their luggage in the overhead luggage compartment?  The driver extended his kindness first and I reciprocated by quickening my pace, and acknowledging his kindness with a big smile while saying “thank you.” I hope my acknowledgment had the same effect on him as his gracious act had on me.

These are examples of kind acts extended to strangers. What about gracious acts to people we know? How do we become a graceful person to our loved ones? How we relate to other people matter a great deal in the science of happiness.

Dr. George Valliant, in his review of the findings on 268 Harvard sophomores selected in 1938-42 and followed prospectively for seven decades until 2009, came to the conclusion that the capacity for empathic relationships is a great predictor of happiness and aging well.  (See George Vaillant’s article on PPND “Yes, I Stand by My Words, “Happiness Equals Love—Full Stop”). Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman included the three strengths of humanity (love, kindness and social intelligence) in their list of 24 character strengths and virtues.

Being Gracious to Our Close Ones

So how do we put “other people matter” into practice? Dr. John Harvey, Professor of Psychology at the University of Iowa, and his colleagues use the term “minding.”  When we mind others we put them into our consciousness and our memory. When we mind, we are practicing a strength of humanity in thinking well of another person.  In short, we start with being gracious, acting in a graceful manner when we mind.

What does it mean to be graceful in the 21st century? Perhaps attending to those times in which we “mind” another person.  So readers of PPND, please take a moment and share with us  the little kindnesses that other people (especially those in romantic, family, friend and work relationships) have done for you.



Harvey, J. H. , Pauwels, B. G. & Zickmund, S. (2005).  Relationship connection:  the role of minding in the enhancement of closeness.   In Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 423-433). New York: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vaillant, G. (2012). Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press.

The car courtesy of Ed-meister
People in Hong Kong courtesy of tiny_packages
Person looking at camera courtesy of marvin L

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Sean Doyle 30 March 2010 - 6:16 pm

Ming, you are right! So often we fail to notice the little acts of kindness that are around us, or fail to do the simplest of things that could be positive trigger moments for others.

Here is an act of kindness by my 10 year old that I was not even aware of. (more on her here: https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/sean-doyle/20081230418)

My daughter’s school is right across the street from an elderly neighbor, Miss Margie, who has outlived her spouse, children and siblings. A few months ago I saw my neighbor and found out that everyday when Ally comes out on the playground, she looks for Miss Margie on her porch. She waves before going to play and then waves again when she is going in from recess. Ally had no idea what a big effect this simple act of kindness had. Miss Margie said that it brightens her day and that watching Ally play is the highlight of her day. When my wife and I heard about it, we were elevated to a point of awe (and extremely proud). It is so simple. So simple.

Sean Doyle 30 March 2010 - 6:19 pm

Dag, apparently I messed up the link. Try this one: https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/sean-doyle/20081230418

Ming 1 April 2010 - 4:49 am

Hi Sean

What Ally does is exactly what I mean by being gracious and kind. She does it instinctively and I am sure with her parents’ positive nurturing, she will become mindful of her character strengths.

Thanks for your gracious act too, by being the first to comment!


Emily 8 April 2010 - 9:26 am

This is lovely and profound. I loved both your story, Ming, and the story of Ally. I can think of so many times in my life when a simple act of kindness or tolerance has made all the difference in my day. I am always humbled by the experience, and try to follow with doing my small part as well. I read once that “the nature of Grace is that it is undeserved” and that is somehow part of what makes these experiences all the more powerful, when we are able to recognize the selflessness on the part of the giver and experience pure gratitude. Thank you for this article! I will share it with many friends.

Stephen Fickes 2 June 2010 - 3:00 pm

Hello Ming – you are the same person I knew at WorldCom in Hong Kong 1999-2000? I am impressed with your work here. Currently I am living in Sao Paulo, Brazil – I have lived here now 7 years. Let me know if you are the same person – I think so!


Ming 5 June 2010 - 4:44 am

Hi Steve
Great to hear from you after so many years. Look forward to exchanging news though it’s probably something we should be doing off-line.


Yijiao 17 August 2010 - 1:13 pm

Ming, I like your reminding questions in this article very much. In fact, these little kind behaviors can make me feel very warm. But I also have another question, I’m thinking whether we can do an experiment to see how long can these kindness influence us. If we put some one in depression in such a kind environment continuously, could he/she get some happiness?

Ming 28 August 2010 - 4:55 am

Hi Emily

A simple act of kindness is sometimes the hardest to do. I think when one is stretched in all directions and feeling stress, we tend not to have the mental capacity to care for other people. As I typed the previous sentence, I have a feeling what I just said is a feeble excuse. Is it? Does this mean if we pay attention to our own wellbeing and manage our stres well, we will have more capacity to care and be kind to other people?

Recently, the VIA institute made a bungled attempt at creating a listserv. Instead of demonstrating empathy, many people reacted from “I”, “my right has been violated” and “I have been inconvenienced” perspective. This is the kind of situation where our strengths of kindness, forgiveness and empathy are put to the test.


Ming 28 August 2010 - 5:02 am

Hi Yijiao

I honestly don’t know how lasting the effect can be for the recipient of act of kindness. There is also the issue of whether the recipient is open or mindful of the act of kindness around him or her.

For me, the motivator to perform an act of kindness is not about whether the recipient acknowledges it or how long the effect lasts, it is an act of self definition. Being a graceful and kind person is what I aspire to, and doing so makes me feel good about myself and also simply feels good.


Luca Marcotulli 6 May 2015 - 2:40 pm

Hello Steve,

I’m glad you are cultivating kindness in the modern world.

I’m sure you’ve learned a lot from Ming.

Concepts like loyalty and truth are cornerstones of human behavior.

Money is nice but giving back, remembering the past, important too.

Wish you and Ming and all executives a prosperous year and healthy long life.

Sharad Kapadia 6 February 2017 - 4:35 am

I experienced many times that simply smiling to and smiling back to people has brightened the smile on face and it contagious continues like good Virus. When it spills over next person(s), the chain continues. A little introspection and observation will be sufficient for each one of us doing this act of positive attitude.


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