The Many Shades of Kindness

A qualitative analysis of kindness stories from our community

Since kindness.org launched in October 2016, our community has submitted hundreds of stories of kindness for others to read. You can find these stories on our website under the initiative title, What’s Your Kindness Story?

The team at kindness.org thought it would be illuminating to take a closer look at these stories to see what kindness means to our community. Doing this would also provide a deeper understanding of what kindness is, and how it is expressed. We wanted to approach the exercise rigorously, so we tasked the scientists at our kindlab with the analysis.

What was our method?

A total of 259 stories were analyzed, comprising 41,000 words from 37 countries. The stories were submitted by both givers (209) and receivers (50) of kindness. No other demographic data was available for analysis.

Our qualitative research used thematic analysis and content analysis techniques:

Thematic analysis is a method for identifying, analyzing, and reporting patterns (themes) within data. It minimally organizes and describes a data set in detail.

Content analysis is a method for quantifying textual data (i.e. words instead of numbers).

Two researchers read all 259 stories and identified the primary act of each one. Specific behaviors, emotions and motivations were recorded where possible. The researchers also attempted to identify other characteristics of the stories, such as the amount of effort involved, whether the acts were planned or spontaneous, and who the kind act was performed on.

A deeper understanding of kindness

Kindness involves giving, helping, caring, and emotional connection, to benefit other people and to spread positive emotions.

We grouped the acts into three clearly identifiable categories:

Giving: providing food, money, gifts, and other useable items, for the receiver to keep.

Helping: doing things for others to help them solve a problem or achieve a goal. Does not include giving.

Caring: tending to another person’s personal physical and/or emotional needs. Does not include giving and helping.

We found that 55% of the kindness stories included giving, 30% included helping, and 8% included caring.

It’s important to note that these percentages do not equal one hundred because some kindness stories involved more than one act.

Going beyond the physical act of kindness

A crucial aspect of kindness appears to be an accompanying emotional component. Our analysis revealed that 44% of the kindness stories involved an emotional connection with others, through displaying sympathy, understanding, respect, concern and emotional warmth.

Some acts, such as thanking someone, openly forgiving someone, and smiling at someone, do not neatly belong to any of the three categories of acts described above. These types of acts appear to be almost entirely emotional, but with an outward display of behavior that distinguishes them from compassion—which may be purely a feeling.

While there is an implicit emotional component to nearly all of the submitted stories, we only counted those stories where the emotional component was obviously stated. Therefore, the true percentage may be higher than forty-four.

Defining kindness

Based on this greater understanding of what kindness is, here is our effort at forming a definition:

Kindness is the act of doing something beneficial to someone (often at a cost to oneself) with an accompanying emotionally positive motivation.

The nuances of kindness

People can put a lot of effort into acts of kindness — a third of acts involved ‘high effort’. However, small acts matter too!

The kindness stories were also analyzed for additional details that could shed light on the nature of kindness. The degree of effort, the recipient of the kind act, and whether the act was planned or spontaneous was identifiable in a high percentage of stories.

What is a ‘low effort’ act of kindness?

We determined that 15% (39 acts) in the kindness stories involved low effort. This does not mean such acts are lesser, unappreciated or not heartfelt. Examples included opening a door for someone, or smiling at a stranger to brighten up their day.

What is a ‘medium effort’ act of kindness?

The kindness stories involved medium effort 42% of the time (108 acts). Examples tended to involve more time, physical exertion or emotional exertion, thought, or resources. For example, buying a homeless person a sandwich or giving up your seat for someone on a long bus journey would be considered medium effort.

What is a ‘high effort’ act of kindness?

High effort acts involved a substantial amount of time, effort, thought or resources. Examples included volunteering for several hours a week, buying and fitting a new battery for a neighbor’s vehicle, making and distributing happiness kits and packages, or even donating a kidney. There were 85 high effort acts in our analysis, or 33% of total acts.

The kindness of strangers

Would you expect people to share stories of kindness to family and friends more than kindness to strangers?

In our analysis, only 46 acts or 18% of total acts shared were to family, friends, known community members, and close neighbors. There were 196 acts of kindness to strangers — 76% of all acts.

Many kind acts to strangers were of high effort, and towards people completely unknown to the kindness giver — people the giver would be unlikely to meet again. Several stories mentioned a stranger stepping forward to pay for someone’s groceries, completely out of the blue, and asking for nothing in return.

Surprising people with kindness

Planned acts and spontaneous acts were about evenly split among the kindness stories, with 44% (113 acts) planned and 47% (121 acts) spontaneous.

Planned acts involved at least some degree of forethought, whether making a cake for a teacher, planting vegetables to share around the community or making blankets to hand out to the homeless. Spontaneous kindness included acts such as helping someone carry luggage up some stairs, stopping to help someone change a car tire, or a spur of the moment decision to buy a stranger’s meal in a restaurant.

Spreading kindness

All kind acts are potentially a form of spreading kindness. However, 9% of total acts (24 acts) specifically mentioned the concept of spreading kindness:

My belief is clear and simpleto share and spread kindness far and wide, making the world a brighter place.”

I will continue to spread the love and he replied I’m going to start spreading the love which I think was the most beautiful part of the whole thing.”

So why are we motivated to be kind?

Kindness has many motivations, and has deep impacts on people.

There are many reasons that people carry out acts of kindness. Some are spontaneous, triggered by the desire to help someone in need. Many are planned, where a person has made the decision to spread kindness in the world.

Trying to identify exactly why someone was motivated to be kind presents many problems. Often people do not know why they chose to be kind. And sometimes the motivation to be kind may be as much about the giver feeling good about themselves, as it is about making others feel good.

Still, much of the community did provide some insight into why (they think) they acted with kindness.

In their own words, here is how our community described their main motivations:

(1) Empathy (understanding and sharing the feelings of others).

Feeling the pain of a stranger.

(2) Wanting to make others feel loved and/or happy.

I started to smile at people who I felt were sad.

(3) Personal emotional benefit.

To make someone’s day makes my day.”

We wanted to teach them spreading love and kindness not only helps others, but you feel great, too!

(4) A desire to help.

I was walking around when I saw an elderly woman struggling to call someone on her phone. I went to her and asked if she needed any help with her phone.

(5) Wanting to change the world or society for the better.

To change the world with a smile

I hope it makes the world a more peaceful place.

(6) Showing appreciation.

I thank the cashiers for working at this time and tell them that I appreciate what they do, because it makes my life easier.

“…paying for soldier’s meals in a restaurant to say thanks for their military service

Behind these motivations appears to be a shared goal of alleviating suffering and improving others’ lives — from offering a stranger a newspaper to read to make their train journey more pleasant, to providing warmth and shelter to someone.

The impact of kindness

Here are some of the ways our community saw an impact with their acts of kindness, as shared in their own words.

For many, performing kind acts were seen as a gift or reward to themselves:

“The feeling I got from that and the lesson my son learned were far more important than the $30 I would have received”

“This — handing out gift cards for coffee and offering strangers lifts on Christmas Eve — is my present to myself every year”

“Doing this small favour was a deeply rewarding experience.”

Doing acts of kindness also made people happier and more appreciative of life:

“It made me feel so much better having done that for the lady”

“I’ve never felt so important to anyone in my life!”

“It felt great to help a stranger in my community”

“I wasn’t in a good mood and that [being kind] really helped me.”

In many instances this doing a kind act encouraged or led to further kind acts:

“My most recent act of kindness was met with such appreciation I will be doing that again.”

“I made a commitment that day to pull over whenever I saw a woman, elderly person or family with kids broken down on the side of the road.”

“After this encounter, I love giving to the poor and the homeless.”

The warmth of these acts and their benefits, resonated for some many years later — sometimes even decades:

“Almost thirty years later, I am still grateful for that breakfast from an old woman in a Frankfurt airport.”

“That was one of the nicest things anyone has done for me. It still brings a smile to my face”

Would you like to do a kind act today?

Visit kindness.org and choose an initiative that resonates with you.