Make Yourself Happy: Be Kind
How to break the negative feedback loop that can make us act mean
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Kindness and niceness, though both excellent personal qualities, are not the same thing. The former is to be good to others; the latter is about being pleasant. They don’t even have to go together. Some say, for example, that New Yorkers are kind but not nice (“Your tire is flat, you moron—hand me your jack”), in contrast to Californians, who are nice but not kind (“Looks like you’ve got a flat tire there—have a good day!”).
Despite the traits’ practical differences, social scientists generally don’t separate niceness and kindness, but lump them together as “prosocial behavior.” The category includes such actions as helping others without solicitation or reward, donating to a charity, and giving someone a compliment. Research shows that being prosocial clearly raises happiness, more so than treating yourself. The converse is true too: A recent review of the academic literature found that happier people act more prosocially. In short, for the sake of your own well-being, there are good reasons to try to be kind.
Unfortunately, we fail a lot. Usually, we behave poorly because others are not nice to us. For example, you might resolve to be better to your spouse, and start the day with the best of intentions. But at breakfast, your spouse offhandedly says something you interpret as criticism. You react unkindly, which provokes anger and starts an argument. The best way to avoid this negative cycle is to jump-start and reinforce the opposite kind of feedback loop: one in which kindness leads to happiness, and happiness to kindness.
Most of us consider ourselves to be good to others. According to one British study, 98 percent of people think of themselves as nicer than most. If this were true (and mathematically possible), we would all constantly be helping our neighbors, getting happier, and wanting to help even more. This is the principle of the prosocial feedback loop.
Unfortunately, the virtuous cycle is easily interrupted. Sometimes, it happens by accident: You get a text while shopping that your kid has failed math, then you’re impatient with the checkout clerk. But in many cases, bad actors are to blame—people who punish prosocial behavior and turn good feelings bad.
To examine this phenomenon in a laboratory setting, in the 2000s, researchers conducted “public-goods experiments” in 16 communities worldwide. These are experiments in which people have to decide whether to contribute publicly and voluntarily to a pool of investments whose gains will be distributed to the entire group regardless of original offering. Participants then react to others’ contributions with either acceptance or punitive action. The researchers found that in communities without strong norms of civic cooperation, antisocial actors punished more generous contributors.
You know instinctively who these kindness–happiness interrupters are. In a 2014 paper titled “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun,” three psychologists studied the behavior of people who enjoy posting negative and abusive material on the internet to harass and upset others. The researchers found that trolling correlated positively with malign personality traits such as psychopathy and Machiavellianism (elements of the so-called dark triad). Additional research has shown that about 7 percent of the population can be classified as dark-triad personalities—in other words, the trolls are among us.
Even if you don’t have such traits, when you’re punished for your kindness, you’re likely to reciprocate. Here’s what that suggests about real life: Imagine you start the day with every intention of behaving kindly, and the expectation that you will get happier as a result. To this end, you might post something upbeat on social media to brighten someone’s day. Routinely—given that social media is the ultimate low-cooperation community—you get a trollish response back, denouncing what you said as completely idiotic. Now unhappier, you respond with an insult of your own. And down you go.
To make sure our good intentions last through the whole day, we need to keep the good feedback going, and avoid the interruptions. Here are three strategies for staying on the kind, happy path.
1. Start (And Restart) the Loop
Begin each day with the resolution that you will treat others in a kindly, pleasant manner. Follow this up with a tangible act of kindness as soon as you can. For example, on your morning commute, let someone into traffic, and smile at the person as you do so. You will probably feel happier.
If someone interrupts this kind–happy loop, remember that your reaction can restart the cycle. For example, if, like me, you live in Boston, the person you let into traffic is as likely to give you the finger as they are to thank you. In such a situation, don’t do what comes naturally. Instead, say to yourself, “I will not let this person interrupt my happiness cycle.” If that feels absurd, laugh at yourself and do it anyway.
2. Avoid Interruptions
Some disruptions to your virtuous cycle are inevitable. But you can game the system by steering clear of certain areas of life that tend to be especially dominated by people who enjoy causing interruptions. If your workplace is full of trolls, consider finding a new job. If you live in a city or neighborhood with low cooperation and a generally unfriendly spirit, consider moving. It probably goes without saying that you should examine your social-media use and ask whether it passes the cost-benefit test for your well-being. Maybe you could visit a platform with kinder norms than the one you are on. Or maybe it is time to say goodbye to that one altogether.
3. Don’t Disrupt the Cycle Yourself
Unfortunately, even if you aren’t a troll, odds are you’ll occasionally interrupt the kind–happy loop for others. Sometimes, when you are having a bad day, someone else’s kindness might simply annoy you, and you might react badly.
As you go about your day, remember that the virtuous cycle is fragile, and the feedback you create goes beyond a simple bad reaction. When you do slip, acknowledge it and say you are sorry. This small act of contrition might in itself restart the feedback loop, putting you—and the other person—on a good path toward greater happiness. For example, if you did misinterpret your spouse’s comment as criticism or snap at the grocery clerk, apologize quickly and go out of your way to do something nice.
The feedback loop, of course, operates on an individual level. But it also has the potential to spread through networks of people and affect an entire culture. I believe that the United States is in a negative feedback loop of unhappiness and hostile behavior. Politics, for example, is dominated by hostility. People who don’t pay attention to politics can hardly escape the daily news, which has become a geyser of bad feelings. A 2022 article in the science journal PLOS One showed that over the past two decades, the language of headlines has hugely increased in anger, disgust, fear, and sadness.
These constant disruptions to the national kind–happy cycle lower everyone’s happiness: Unhappier citizens support negative politicians and consume angry news media, which beget unhappier citizens. One might even speculate that our system could elevate trolls who feed on negativity to high office (or that it has already done so).
The solution, if we are up to the task, is to interrupt this cultural doom loop with a policy agenda intended to work for the majority instead of against political enemies, media that lift people up, and leaders who are in the positive mainstream, not on the angry fringes. Such a future wouldn’t magically make our problems disappear. Legitimate disagreements will still divide us, and trolls will still try to do so with illegitimate ones. But the disagreements wouldn’t so commonly become insults and threats, and trolls would have less power.
Then again, as you might decide to note on social media, this may all be completely idiotic. In that case, I hope you have a nice day.