How random is kindness?

By Senior Editor of SocialBusiness.org

People participate in “acts of kindness” every day. Whether or not I see in while I’m on my daily grind, there are some things that do make me stop and think, wow. Just last week, during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I was walking in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, which was still without power at this time. It was Halloween, but it didn’t feel like it (despite that I feel too old and apathetic for Halloween). This family, however, was dressed up to the max. A young girl had a bucket of candy and was handing out to whoever. I smiled and thanked her and munched on a childhood-favorite candy of mine, red licorice. A small, thing, yes. It would have been a nice act regardless, but because the neighborhood was going through a power outage, the sense of community anxiety was high. The small things, right? They were not, of course, alone. The Huffington Post published a “Random Acts of Kindness After Hurricane Sandy” slideshow: “No power or water, fuel shortages and limited transportation has made life pretty darn difficult for the East Coast. But it’s usually in times of need that the best of mankind emerges. And so, we’ve been seeing wonderful examples of human kindness and generosity over the last few days — from free pizza in the beleaguered East Villageto a little girl setting up a charging station in Hoboken.” How are these small things, these brief smiles and sometimes anonymous acts, recognized, if at all? Should they be? Kindness in the media often acts as something relegated to a small, local news channel, akin sometimes to the high school “Athlete of the Week.” In a way, these  programs are an attempt to counter the amount of sensational violence, crime, war, etc. in the news media. Thanks to the proliferation of blogs — and the resulting proliferation of every single kind of blog imaginable — there are websites and Tumblrs galore that focus solely on the kind and generous things that everyday people do. I mean, it’s no surprise that Oprah has her 35 Little Acts of Kindness feature. These types of guides exist as if we don’t know how to be nice to other people. And perhaps niceness is an overstatement, a lot of the times, it’s simply the decent thing to do. There are organizations and social businesses that focus exclusively on giving recognition and appreciation to people who volunteer their time or do small things to make a moment for someone. I recently talked with a founder of a social business who said that a lot of volunteers don’t necessarily want public recognition or appreciation. Do people participate in acts of kindness for others? To gain recognition? To make themselves feel like better, more generous people? To feel part of a community? I’m sure there are many, many reasons why people do what they do and I’m not sure so-called “random” acts of kindness are that at all.

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