A SMART Look at Kindness

Dave’s story: A group of colleagues and I walked into a restaurant across from where a homeless man sat. As we went through the line, one of us – a lovely young woman with a mischievous sense of humor – ordered an extra meal to go. When the food was brought to our table, she took the extra meal and walked toward the door. Surprised because I thought she probably ordered the meal for a colleague who did not come with us, I watched as she walked over to the homeless man, bent down and spoke briefly, and then left the meal with him. Wow. What a show of kindness! I had been caught up in conversation as we walked into the restaurant and hardly noticed the man; she had noticed, cared, and acted. I looked at this young woman whom I already respected immensely with deeper appreciation for a quality I hand not seen before. And I determined to watch for opportunities when I, too, could be kind.

Kindness – A Broader Context

“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” Henry James

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” Plato

“Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.” J.K. Rowlying, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Sound Track[1]: “Lean on Me” by Al Green, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” by Simon and Garfunkel

In Character Strengths and Virtues, Peterson and Seligman describe the VIA Character Strength of Kindness [Generosity, Nurturance, Care, Compassion, Altruistic Love, “Niceness”] as an orientation toward others as worthy of attention and affirmation just because rather than as a means to an end. Kindness manifests in actions of respect, care, and compassion out of a warm emotional response to others and not just to obtain reciprocal behavior from the recipient of the kind acts or recognition from observers. Reciprocity and recognition may occur and can be accepted, but they are not the primary motivation. Often, in fact, individuals will manifest Kindness as quietly and secretly as possible. My friend (and, notice that in my mind, she went from “colleague” to “friend”!), did nothing to draw attention to her kind act. She simply did it. Had circumstances permitted, I suspect she would have done it completely in secret.

A Primer in Positive Psycholgy (Peterson, 2006), includes a circumplex chart showing which strengths occur (image available here) showing the tendency of the 24 VIA Character Strengths to co-occur.  For Kindness, more common companion strengths include:


Less common companion strengths include:


Of course, “less common” means just that. It is unusual to see Kindness as a Signature Character Strength in someone who also has a Signature Character strength of Creativity, but it is only rare enough to be noteworthy, not astonishing.

Shalom Schwartz has researched the structure of commonly held values around the world also produces a circumplex model. Each value tends to align with those close to it and exists in tension with those across the circle. Although we are unaware of research connecting the VIA Characters Strengths to Schwartz’ model, we suggest that individuals with a strong Signature Character Strength of Kindness would also likely endorse the value of Benevolence.

In Gallup’s StrengthsFinder framework, Kindness could manifest in several themes depending on nuance and context. Possible themes include Connectedness, Developer, Empathy, Inclusiveness, and Restorative.

Spotting Kindness: Watch for acts done in a warm, empathetic way that meet another’s needs or enable achievement of meaningful goals, especially when those acts are likely to go unnoticed by others. Sometimes even the recipient will be unaware of the identity of the one who generated a kindness. Also consider the motivation for the kind acts; those with a Signature Character Strength of Kindness are internally motivated. They do not have to be reminded; they will persist even when the recipient is not obviously appreciative, or is even dismissive or derisive. Remember that Kindness – like it’s frequently co-occurring strengths of Forgiveness, Teamwork, and Leadership – is an other-oriented strength; so begin by noticing which students tend to be most aware of the behaviors and emotional states of others, then look to see if that orientation toward others might be coming out as Kindness.


Managing Kindness:  Managing strengths involves synergy, shadow sides, and supervision.
Synergy – how is a student’s Kindness affected by his or her other Signature Character Strengths. For example, the student who lives Kindness along with Zest, Hope, and Curiosity is likely to be Kind in very different ways for another student who joins it with Authenticity, Prudence, and Open-mindedness.
Shadow Sides – Overuse can leave the person who is too kind without time or energy for themselves. This can sometimes be driven by deep patterns of thinking (see Chapter 7) along the lines of, “I must always be there for others,” or “The needs of others must always come before my own.” Misuse can occur in situations when “helping” prevents the recipient from developing their own strengths and gaining needed skills.
Supervision – Students with a Signature Character Strength of Kindness need to be help others. Opportunities to assist, tutor, and serve will improve their engagement in the classroom. In addition, explicitly linking content to ways it can enable Kindness will provide a reason to work hard at mastering that content. So, for example, a story about an adult using mathematics skills to assist in getting aid to disaster victims may be much more motivating for students with a signature strength of Kindness than exhortations to master math so they can make a lot of money in the future.

Advocating Kindness: Help students reflect and put the role of Kindness in their own character into context with their other strengths. Some will reflect on its role as a signature strength, while others may be reflecting on its lack of prominence in their approach to life and relationships. Of the latter group, some will feel a strong need to learn to be more kind and others will not feel that compulsion. Remember that the values underlying the strengths are in tension and that those strongly oriented toward one set of values will be less oriented toward others. Ultimately, the decision to try to develop any strength must rest with the individual and the time and energy available for such development likely require a focus on one or two strengths that “call” to the individual at any point in life.

Relating Kindness: When does kindness build a relationship with the recipient? What is the impact when the recipient feels indebted or is ungrateful? Students can think about when they have received kindness and try to distinguish factors that sometimes make that receipt build a relationship versus when it does not.

Training Kindness: Time + Awareness. Kindness requires time. One study found that even seminary students who were late for an appointment were much less likely to help someone in need than those who had some time to spare.[2] Help students notice the effect of time pressure on their tendency to be Kind. In addition, kindness begins with an awareness of others in need. Note how, in the story that starts this post, Dave’s preoccupation with colleagues and conversation made him overlook someone with a need. Simply noticing needs can promote kindness, so when appropriate within the classroom or school setting, acknowledge needs. For example, geography lessons could include a component on efforts to meet needs of individuals living in the area studied. Also remember the personal – transparency occasionally the opportunity to admit to one’s own needs and acknowledge how the kind actions of one or more students helped.

Movies: Suggestions fromPositive Psychology at the Movies by Ryan Niemic and Danny Wedding:
Babe (1995)
Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2003)
Pay It Forward (2000)

For adult study, Niemic and Wedding highly recommend the French film, Amelie (2001).

*** As usual, sign up for our newsletter for bonus material. This week on the relationship between Kindness and bullying.***

[1] Suggested in an unpublished work by Drs. Tayyab Rashid and Afroze Anjun.
[2] Darley, J.M. & Batson, C.D. (1973).  From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(1), 100-108.

Comments are closed.