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by Ben Dean Ph.D.

The 14th strength in Character Strengths and Virtues is the strength of kindness: This strength may also include such concepts as generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, and altruistic love. Here's an example from my own life.

My best friend from grade school, Anne Biggers, was in a car accident two months ago while driving in West Texas. She was doing the speed limit in a light rain when her car skidded on an oil spot. She spun out of control, sailed across the median, through a lane of traffic and hit a concrete abutment. Her airbag went off and she survived with just bruises.

Before she even had time to get out of the car, three people pulled over to offer help. One person had already called the highway patrol, and another offered her cell phone so that Anne could call for AAA. Another couple (and their children) actually went with her to get her car repaired at a local repair shop and waited with her until her car was fixed because they knew the shop was in a relatively unsafe part of Abilene.

When Anne told me this story, I was touched by the kindness of these strangers. Yet, though the kindnesses they gave her were inspiring, they were not extraordinary. Human beings are kind to one another, and we sometimes help others at great personal cost.

Why do we do this?

When I re-read the chapter on kindness in the Classification of Strengths and Virtues, I was again struck by how hotly debated the answers to this question are. This may be simplistic, but it seems to me that there are basically two groups of researchers and philosophers who are interested in why we are kind to one another: (1) those who believe in altruism and (2) those who do not.

One theoretical tradition ("universal egoism") suggests that every "kind" act is ultimately done to benefit the self.

A second tradition believes that people are, in fact, able to act with the ultimate goal of benefiting someone else.

Psychologist Daniel Batson and colleagues (2002) offer the following commentary on universal egoism vs. altruism (p. 486):

Those arguing for universal egoism have elegance and parsimony on their side in this debate. It is simpler to explain all human behavior in terms of self-benefit than to postulate a motivational pluralism in which both self-benefit and another's benefit can serve as ultimate goals. Elegance and parsimony are important criteria in developing scientific explanations, yet they are not the most important criterion. The most important task is to explain adequately and accurately the phenomenon in question.

The Case Against Altruism

First, let's consider the case against altruism. Acting with kindness offers the following "selfish" benefits:

1) Doing something kind reduces the tension created by our experience of empathy and inaction.

It can be physically and psychologically uncomfortable to see someone in need of support (e.g., a homeless person shivering during winter, a friend who lost a parent, a child being verbally abused by a parent). Helping relieves this tension.

2) A kind act allows us to avoid social sanction or personal guilt for failing to help.

You may remember the very last Seinfeld show. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer were prosecuted and jailed in Massachusetts for failing to help someone being robbed, thus violating a Good Samaritan law. Such laws actually do exist in a few states (although fines are more likely than jail time). A much more common sanction for failing to help when needed is the disapproval of our friends, coworkers, family members, and romantic partners. Selfish, Insensitive, Heartless, Mean--These are labels we wish to avoid.

3) Kindness confers social and personal rewards.

We earn the approval of others and feel good about ourselves for doing the "right" thing. A theory or "reciprocal altruism" suggests that kind acts are most often directed toward individuals who are likely to repay us in the future (Trivers, 1971). If you offer to collect the mail of your neighbors when they are on vacation, then they will likely do the same for you. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller noted that a truly anonymous act of kindness is the exception. For example, most "anonymous" donations are no secret to the giver's immediate family. Miller does not deny that most people have pure intentions when they donate money or time; but he does question why feelings of empathy and a proclivity to help evolved in the first place. He suggests that they evolved because acting with kindness and generosity confers social rewards.

The Other Side

Since the 1980s, around 25 experiments have tested whether these selfish benefits are enough to explain altruistic behavior.

Consider, for example, Selfish Benefit #1: Doing something kind reduces the tension created by our experience of empathy and inaction. Researchers have tested this explanation by putting individuals in situations where they are likely to feel empathy toward someone in need (the tension mounts) and then varying how easy it is for them to escape from that situation. If individuals were primarily motivated by a desire to reduce tension, then they would choose to escape from the situation when this was easy (e.g., nobody would know that they decided not to help). If, on the other hand, individuals were motivated by the desire to alleviate the distress of someone in trouble, then an easy escape option would do nothing to relieve this tension. Results consistently support the second explanation.

In addition, similar experiments designed to pit a "helping others" motivation against more selfish ones (e.g., avoiding social sanctions, avoiding guilty, obtaining social or personal rewards) lend support to the other-oriented motivation. For an interesting review of these social psychology experiments, I recommend Psychologist Daniel Batson's book, The Altruism Question (1991). In my book, the case for altruism is a hard one to ignore-even on my most cynical days.

Finally, take Sonja Lyubomirsky, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford and one of Positive Psychology's leading lights. Sonja has tested whether asking people to "commit" five random acts of kindness would reliably increase their level of positive emotion. The good news is that it does. (Lyubomirsky et al, 2004). And it is most effective if all five acts are carried out on the same day. Here are Sonja's instructions:

In our daily lives, we all perform acts of kindness for others. These acts may be large or small and the person for whom the act is performed may or may not be aware of the act. Examples include feeding a stranger's parking meter, donating blood, helping a friend with homework, visiting an elderly relative, or writing a thank you letter. One day each week, you are to perform five acts of kindness. The acts do not need to be for the same person, the person may or may not be aware of the act, and the act may or may not be similar to the acts listed above. Do not perform any acts that may place yourself or others in danger.

When I first heard about Sonja's research, I began to do this. I found that many days it was difficult for me to keep focused enough to remember to perform my five separate acts of kindness. So some days, I came up short. Gradually I've become more disciplined, and it always feels good to me. The practice not only seems to increase my level of happiness, it also has changed the way I spend the whole day because I have to keep looking for opportunities to be kind. I recommend the practice.

If you would like to contribute to the kindness in the world, consider the following suggestions adapted from a list by Psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia and Tayyab Rashid at the University of Pennsylvania (with the addition of Sonja's five acts of kindness.)

  • Leave a huge tip for a small check.
  • Be a listening ear to a friend. Ask your friend how her day was and actually listen and respond to her before describing your own day.
  • Flu season is upon us. Help a friend or neighbor who is ill by delivering chicken soup, doing the laundry, or walking the dog.
  • Give someone else the gift of time-Do something for someone else that requires time and effort on your part.
  • The next time someone admires something of yours and you can afford to do without it, give it away.
  • Volunteer in your community.
  • One day each week, "commit" five random acts of kindness. And, when possible, make them anonymous.


Batson, C.D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer. .Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Batson, C. D. (2002) Addressing the altruism question experimentally. In S. G. Post, L. G. Underwood, J. P. Schloss, & W. B. Hurlbut (Eds.), Altruism and altruistic love: Science, philosophy, and religion in dialogue (pp. 89-105). New York: Oxford University Press.

Batson, C. D., Ahmad, N., Lishner, D. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). Empathy and altruism. In C. R. Snyder & S. L. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 485-498). New York: Oxford University Press.

Lyubomirsky, S., Tkach, C., & Sheldon, K. M. (2004). Pursuing sustained happiness through random acts of kindness and counting one's blessings: Tests of two six-week interventions.Unpublished data, Department of Psychology, University of California, Riverside.

Miller, G. F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. New York: Doubleday.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association/New York: Oxford University Press.

Trivers, R. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35-37.