On 1st September, New Zealand celebrates Random Acts of Kindness Day, a tradition started in 2005 by Josh de Jong and some friends. After witnessing a road rage incident, Josh thought how good it would be if people could be kind to strangers, even if only for one day of the year. The result was RAK day, designed to “inspire Kiwis to come up with fun and crazy ways to surprise and delight others. For no reason at all.”
And while there may be no specific reason why you should buy a coffee for that stranger or give up your seat on the bus, there are many valid reasons why acts of kindness in general are beneficial, both for ourselves and the recipients.
Acts of kindness are often called altruism, stemming from the Latin word for other, meaning that altruism is about putting others before ourselves. Some philosophers have argued that a society of altruists could not function, because everybody would wait for the other person to go first. Others have argued that there is no such thing as true altruism because people really do things for selfish reasons – if not for the material benefits or bragging rights, then at least for the good feeling it gives them.
However, the whole idea of altruism as other-focused is based on the premise that individuals are separate from one another, rather than interdependent members of wider society. Looking at the bigger picture, we see that by helping another person, we contribute to the community in which we live. That individual may not pay us back directly, but they are more likely to pay it forward by helping someone else, thus raising the community’s overall level of support and trust.
As a bonus, we do get a good feeling when we do something nice for another person. It makes us feel valued and gives a sense of connection and belonging, much needed in this modern – often very isolating – world.