Scenario one: you are in perfect health and in a loving relationship. You are not rich but your material needs are met. You live in a society that allows you to be yourself. However, people treat each other poorly. Kindness is rare and hardly anyone will ever lend a helping hand, no matter what the need. Are you happy there?
According to statistics, probably not. On the whole, people prefer to live in a society in which humans help each other. Whether it is a town picnic to raise money for the family hit with insane medical bills or a nationwide effort to send relief to flood victims, the fact that folks look out for each other, even somewhat, makes us all feel better. Interesting, huh?
Where do I get this idea? Well, several times now I’ve posted about a report on which countries have the happiest people. I spent some time reading the report once I became intrigued to learn that six attributes account for most of the variation in world happiness. I summed up the six categories as health, wealth, freedom, love, kindness and fairness. I’ve already written about the first four and today I’m thinking about kindness.
The very idea that humans prefer a world in which people look out for each other flies in the face of the writings and philosophies of a still popular author from the 1950’s named Ayn Rand. Ms. Rand grew up in a totalitarian country, and she brought her hatred of government and social obligations with her to the United States where her flair for writing fiction enabled her to reach a wide audience with her ideas. Part of her philosophy, known as objectivism, involved the importance of personal freedom and personal wealth, and these concepts resonated with many. It’s not surprising. Both have been shown to play an important role in human happiness.
As to health and love, the heroes of Ms. Rand’s books were always in perfect health, in spite of smoking a great deal of cigarettes, and they generally found love, at least the romantic variety. However, they all really hated the idea of helping out anyone else, and I think this is where Ms. Rand ultimately lost a lot of followers.
One could argue that we prefer a kinder society simply because each of us hopes that we would be helped if we were in desperate need, but I think it is more than that. Somewhere deep inside, most of us get that we are linked. A natural disaster elsewhere effects us with its ripples, a tragedy in our town saddens not just our neighbors, but us as well. Pulling together to overcome the problems foisted on us by fate or by acts of human destruction makes us all realize that we are stronger together. Being strong feels good. Overcoming adversity makes us happy. We can overcome more adversity when we work together. Working together requires kindness. It’s an equation that resonates inside each of us.
How did the happiness survey measure kindness? Good question. For each of the attributes they sought out simple, black and white yardsticks and in this case I do not think that they were able to find one that was adequate. They went with using philanthropy; normalizing donations made based on population and income. While this might be be somewhat indicative of kindness in wealthier counties, even there it also reflects extraneous variables like tax codes and social norms. And for countries in which people barely make enough to meet their own needs, helping others is more likely to be found in giving shelter or food to strangers, or by providing services like health care or construction help to those beset by disasters. These acts of generosity work to hold the society together and bring joy to all, and yet they were missed by the yardstick used. I suspect that many low-income countries received lower happiness scores because of this.
In the end, of course, no country’s ranking matters. What does matter is how the people who live there feel. Are they happy? If it is common to extend kindness, any kind of kindness, to others, then yes. They are happier because they do so.
(For more posts on the subject of what makes us happy see If you want to be happy move to a cold country?, Happiness fascinates me, None of us are normal if we’re lucky, Four Reasons I Love It When “Love Wins”, The fairest of them all?, and When is it time for “More”?)