“One of the most dangerous narratives we have in our culture currently is this idea that kindness is free.”

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Design by Mekhi Baldwin. Photo by Meraki Narrative.

November 13th is officially World Kindness Day. But hey! We can totally be kind to each other on any and every day of the year. Right? And we should. For a deep dive into what it means to be truly kind and how to put kindness into meaningful action, we interviewed author and speaker Houston Kraft.

His book, Deep Kindness: A Revolutionary Guide for the Way We Think, Talk, and Act in Kindness, launched this fall. Kraft co-founded CharacterStrong, a program that teaches social and emotional skills to students all over the world. And he’s basically a kindness guru.

I hear people say, ‘Why aren’t people more kind to each other? It doesn’t cost you anything.’ And I’m like, ‘No, it definitely does.’

This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.

“Kindness” is one of those words that is overused to the point where it has become undervalued. When I think about kindness — and I’m guessing when most people think about kindness — they think about the things like the pay-it-forward coffee lines. And while those things are great, we need a new way of thinking about it.

One of the most dangerous narratives we have in our culture currently is this idea that kindness is free. In the current reality of our world, we feel frustrated that there isn’t more compassion. I hear people say, “Why aren’t people more kind to each other? It doesn’t cost you anything.” And I’m like, “No, it definitely does.”

If I don’t spend time first identifying what people are going through, what they’re navigating, what they actually need, then my kindness is going to typically serve me more than it does the person on the far side.

The sort of kindness that I think drives cultural change requires us to spend our time, our energy, our efforts. At a deeper level, it costs us empathy and listening. I think it costs us discipline and reprioritization. And probably the biggest cost for most people is comfort.

Deep kindness that makes real change is about observing and meeting needs. That’s where empathy plays a huge role. If I don’t spend time first identifying what people are going through, what they’re navigating, what they actually need, then my kindness is going to typically serve me more than it does the person on the far side.

After the Sandy Hook shooting, people wanted to be kind right in this moment of pain. And so people sent teddy bears and stuffed animals — so many that Newtown had to rent a 20,000-square-foot warehouse. And the guy who ran the candlelit vigil said, “You know, a teddy bear is great, but a teddy bear doesn’t pay for counseling, and a teddy bear doesn’t pay for a funeral.”

Jamil Zaki, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University, says empathy is an easily confused concept because people think that empathy is an action unto itself. He says empathy is more of an umbrella term that encapsulates sharing, thinking, and caring.

Sharing is the aspect of empathy that is, “Do I know what you’re feeling?” Thinking is more of the cognitive form of empathy that is, “Do I know how to imagine myself into your experience?” And then caring is the action component. That’s where kindness comes into play. “Do I understand how your experience has shaped your world, your life, your needs on a higher level? And then can I take that understanding and mobilize it into compassionate action?”

The reality of empathy on its own is we can feel bad for people who are suffering and still do nothing to alleviate that suffering.

Create a micro habit in your brain by pre-declaring the kind of person you’ll be in any given situation. A lot of us think of ourselves as kind people, but we haven’t decided what that looks like in different situations.

So for example, an “if, then” statement might be, “If I see a person experiencing homelessness, then I’m the kind of person who’s going to offer them some food.” Or “If I see someone who looks like they’re struggling or they’re not acting like themselves, then I’m the kind of person who will send them a private message checking in on how they’re doing.” Saying those things out loud or actually writing them out is going to increase the likelihood that we do those things in the moment.

We all have to-do lists because all of us are busy. And so when we have too much to do on our to-do lists, we get overwhelmed and that reduces our willingness to be kind or compassionate. So what if in writing your daily to-do list, you write down just a one-item “to-be” list?

From a really practical standpoint, you can write a daily to-be list above your to-do list to make sure that it gets just as much priority as everything else you have to get done.

Who do I want to give my kindness to today? And what do they need today? The more specifically you are addressing someone’s life, their needs, their circumstances, the more likely that kindness is going to be meaningful to them.

My mom navigated stage 4 colon cancer. And when someone’s going through something really challenging like that, people come out of the woodwork to show support. And you realize that some people are way more effective at being helpful in those situations than others.

For example, people will drop by meals without asking if meals are needed. My mom literally didn’t have room for the meals, or they were dropping off things that were not a part of her diet as she was navigating chemotherapy.

Sometimes we forget that the question ‘How can I help?’ puts the responsibility on the person who’s actively suffering to come up with an answer.

Sometimes we forget that the question “How can I help?” puts the responsibility on the person who’s actively suffering to come up with an answer. To me, the most practical way you can help people who are navigating pain is to think about who that person is in your life and what you know about them.

Provide them with two choices. Say, “Hey, would it be helpful for me to give you an Uber Eats gift card? Or is it more helpful for me to come and sweep your kitchen?” It reduces the burden on the person suffering to have to take responsibility to ask for help, especially if they don’t necessarily know what they need in that moment.

Just because you put a bandage on someone, you’d never say that you’re a doctor. And just because you fixed a chain on a bike, you’d never call yourself an engineer. And yet for a lot of us, we’ll do something kind because we had an opportunity to pay it forward or because we do a community service day once a year. Just because we do a kind thing does not mean we are a kind person.

We have to earn ourselves into being kind. And like any other skill in our life, that requires ongoing, consistent practice, reflection, and discipline in order to arrive. And the beautiful thing to me about kindness is that you never fully arrive. We will always be becoming a kind person.