Based on a quick glance at magazine covers, it seems like there are certain qualities everyone's looking for in a mate. Nail the perfect combo of good looks, quick wit, and career success, and you've got the perfect formula for attracting a partner, right?
Well, it's partly true: Research shows these aspects (physical appearance, humor, and ambition) are certainly attractive to potential romantic partners. What leads to romantic attraction: similarity, reciprocity, security, or beauty? Evidence from a speed-dating study. Luo S, Zhang G. Journal of personality, 2009, May.;77(4):1467-6494. Effect of humor on interpersonal attraction and mate selection. McGee E, Shevlin M. The Journal of psychology, 2009, Feb.;143(1):0022-3980. But it turns out, a bit of benevolence may be what your dating game’s missing. One large-scale study found that more than 10,000 men and women from around the globe consider kindness—yes, kindness—to be one of the most important qualities in a romantic partner.
Here’s why your reflection, your paycheck, and where you stand in the social pecking order can’t hold a candle to the quality of your character.
Why Kindness Matters Most
Numerous studies corroborate the appeal of kindness. Even small gestures, such as giving a stranger a flower, lending a close friend an ear, or simply doing someone a favor (like carrying their groceries), can enhance our likeability and increase others’ willingness to commit to us.
And it seems to translate to physical attraction. Research shows that genuine trustworthiness, authenticity, and reliability may even boost our sex appeal. The long-term benefits of human generosity in indirect reciprocity. Wedekind C, Braithwaite VA. Current Biology : CB, 2002, Sep.;12(12):0960-9822. What do people desire in others? A sociofunctional perspective on the importance of different valued characteristics. Cottrell CA, Neuberg SL, Li NP. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, Mar.;92(2):0022-3514. (Wow, you really did keep your word—swoon!) Further studies confirm: Being a kind and honest person can cause people to perceive your face and body type as more attractive. More than just skin deep? Personality information influences men's ratings of the attractiveness of women's body sizes. Swami V, Furnham A, Chamorro-Premuzic T. The Journal of Social Psychology, 2011, Jan.;150(6):0022-4545.
By being authentically kind, we can also positively influence others’ moods, foster warm feelings of connectedness with friends and family members, and soothe folks when they’re super stressed. Familial social support predicts a reduced cortisol response to stress in sexual minority young adults. Burton CL, Bonanno GA, Hatzenbuehler ML. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2014, May.;47():1873-3360. And really, who doesn’t want those qualities in a date!?
Even our ancient ancestors agreed. Evolutionary psychologists believe that kindness survived natural selection because it allowed for stronger parent-child bonds and enabled partners and tribe members to stick together—all crucial abilities in our ongoing fight for existence and proliferation. Sexual selection for moral virtues. Miller GF. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 2008, Jan.;82(2):0033-5770.
Finally, being nice won't only benefit your love life: Recent studies suggest that people who do nice things for others on a regular basis are happier, healthier, and may even have longer lifespans. Acts of kindness and acts of novelty affect life satisfaction. Buchanan KE, Bardi A. The Journal of Social Psychology, 2010, Jul.;150(3):0022-4545. Motives for volunteering are associated with mortality risk in older adults. Konrath S, Fuhrel-Forbis A, Lou A. Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 2011, Aug.;31(1):1930-7810. Loving-Kindness Meditation practice associated with longer telomeres in women. Hoge EA, Chen MM, Orr E. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 2013, Apr.;32():1090-2139. Giving to Others and the Association Between Stress and Mortality. Poulin M, Brown S, Dillard A. American Journal of Public Health. 2013 September; 103(9): 1649–1655. Cue: letting go of every excuse you’ve ever given yourself to be a d*ck.
Sign Me Up!
Not sure whether your niceness factor is up to snuff? Carrie Cole, a certified couples' therapist, reminds us that kindness comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s not always a function of what we do for others; it’s equally about how we think and what we say.
1. Adjust your mindset.
Have empathy and compassion for where someone else might be coming from, instead of reacting to what they’re saying or doing solely based on how it affects us, Cole suggests. Meaning: Consider that she may not actually be blowing you off if she says she has plans with her work buddies and can’t grab a drink. Or keep in mind he may really like you, but needs time before he feels comfortable meeting your parents.
Being kind can mean giving people the benefit of the doubt instead of jumping to the conclusion they’re a bad person.
“Being kind can mean giving people the benefit of the doubt instead of jumping to the conclusion they’re a bad person or harbor malicious intent,” Cole explains. So if she’s being a bit standoffish on the first date, try easing back a bit and approaching her more warmly rather than writing her off as frigid. Or refrain from assuming he’s no longer into you just because he sounded distant on the phone. (Though it never hurts to ask someone what’s going on in that moment—or, if they’re too emotional, once they’ve cooled down.)
2. Put it into words.
Expressing gratitude (“I’m really thankful we met,” “I so appreciate you meeting me for dinner tonight”), verbalizing what you admire and respect about a date or S.O. (“I love the way your mind works,” “You have a wonderful sense of style,” “You give incredible hugs”) or offering a mate encouragement (“You’re getting so good at learning how to make me feel amazing in bed”) are spoken versions of kindness, Cole points out.
Find something you truly consider positive about another person—without, of course, falsely praising their every characteristic. And while it may be easier to focus on the superficial (“I love how sexy you look in that outfit”), pointing out a person’s beneath-the-surface perks makes a much more significant impact.
Post-date, it never hurts to text them to make sure they arrive home safely to show that you care about their safety. And don’t hesitate to break that ridiculous 24-hour-no-texting rule with a simple “Hey, thanks for a really nice time tonight.”
FInally—and this also comes in handy during those slightly awkward, quiet moments of a dinner date: Ask questions—about their job, their weekend plans, their new nephew. Flexing your niceness muscle also means demonstrating a genuine curiosity about the other person's life, Cole says.
3. And... action!
Kindness most comes through in what we do and how we treat people. Putting it into action ranges from asking if your date needs to borrow your jacket or umbrella in bad weather to being responsive when you’re together, Cole says. (Read: Put. Down. The. Smartphone.) It's also nice to always acknowledge communication, even when you're busy ("Great to hear from you! I'll write you back once I’m off work.")
If a date ends with a sleepover, consider having a clean toothbrush ready for them at your place. Not sharing a bed quite yet? Offer to pay for a date’s cab ride home, or walk them to whatever mode of transportation they’re taking.
As your relationship evolves, it’s also important to demonstrate to your partner you’ll be there for them when they need it.
As your relationship evolves, it’s also important to demonstrate to your partner you’ll be there for them when they need it, adds Cole. This is what’s called being trustworthy—and it’s a major application of kindness to the real world.
In addition to hugging your partner, offering them a shoulder to cry on, or making time to meet them after work when they’ve had a rough day, trust is built when we stand up for them—say, in the event someone makes an off-colored joke at a party.
And while you may typically think of kindness as making an extra effort, Cole reminds us that the art of being nice can also mean doing less. If you know you err on the side of being overly communicative—or you're getting the hint that your texts, calls, or e-mails may be a bit overwhelming—try giving your partner more space to process your well-intended missives.
We’re not saying to go ahead and cancel your gym membership, lose your sense of humor, or stop striving for that sought-after promotion. But if you're looking for a lasting, satisfying, and sustainable relationship, the key may be simpler than you ever thought: Just be nice. Not only will your kind nature attract others, but approaching the world with a kinder mindset can positively impact your well-being.