The pandemic tidal wave — obliterating our work lives, our sense of control and safety, our relationships, and for many of us, our livelihoods — requires a new way of thinking about how we manage our mental health and our performance. Self-care solutions that are easy to access, can be done anywhere, and have proven value. In my last blog, I discussed the concept of “being here” and thepower of the present moment. Here, I talk about some ways that niceness matters and, too, has subtle power to make us happier, healthier, and more effective.
Tip #2. Be Nice.
Esteemed meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg calls qualities such as “nice” and “kind” the second-tier virtues. If you can’t be brave, at least be nice. Yet isn’t it interesting that this is often the first virtue we are taught as children? “Be nice!” “Why can you play nicely with your cousin?” We are rewarded for this behavior as children, but seen as suckers when we are nice as an adult. “Nice guys finish last” was a quote famously attributed to the legendary Major League Baseball manager, Leo Durocher, and it sums up the sense of unease many of us have about leading with niceness.
Yet, in times of crisis and uncertainty, human beings crave connection. One reason for this is that we evolved as a species to thrive in community. Otherwise, we would not have survived against all the stronger and fiercer creatures that roamed the Earth millions of years ago. These evolutionary roots have left us with a legacy of the aptly named “pro-social emotions” that served to hold our communities together. Emotions such as guilt and shame motivate us to make amends after social transgressions, while our acts of niceness, kindness, and compassion act as social lubricants, helping ourselves and others feel better. Nothing second-tier about that.
In today’s world in particular, however, our ability to connect, at least in person, is under threat. Physical distancing requirements mean that we literally can’t offer up that comforting touch on a shoulder or arm when we see someone suffering. Grandparents are forbidden to hug their grandchildren.
All is not lost, however. While we may be unable to physically touch those outside our immediate social groups, there are opportunities aplenty to exercise our “niceness” muscle in ways both big and small…and in ways that keep us and those around us safe and healthy. It’s good for us and it’s good for others.
Being Nice Is Good For Us
Being proactively nice and expressing our concern for others allows us to both embody our evolutionary heritage and improve our mental health. Literally. When we are nice to others, our brains respond by boosting levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for elevating our inner sense of satisfaction and wellbeing. Being nice has also been shown to buffer against feelings of anxiety. Researchers at the University of British Columbia discovered that socially anxious people had lower baseline levels of positive emotionality. In their experiment, hey asked a group of socially anxious individuals to do nice things for others over four weeks. It turns out that being nice helped participants feel not only more positive but they were more able to engage in social activities that in the past were limited by their anxiety.
The beauty of this concept is that its effects can be compounded. By consciously highlighting, through our actions, our intent to be nice, we increase our awareness and gratitude for our own good fortune, which makes us happier. Researchers in Japan found that prompting participants to take note of their acts of kindness led to elevated feelings of happiness and which then led to more acts of kindness.
If that isn’t a feedback loop worth cultivating in these times, I don’t know what is.
Being Nicer in Life and at Work
Consider how you can add even small acts of niceness to your day.
Walking to the shops? Try smiling and saying hello to the people you pass.
Invite that car trying to merge to more easily get in front of you.
At the shops? Offer your shopping cart to the person fumbling for change to get their own.
Take advantage of opportunities when they arise and start making “being nice” a habit.
If you see yourself as more of a task-focused leader or worker and less likely to embody care and kindness in your interpersonal style, what better time to try out some new ways of interacting with your team? Particularly for teams who are now interacting from remote locations and experiencing potential stressors both known and unknown, showing care and kindness toward the people you work with has never been more important for everyone’s mental health and well-being. Moreover, Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina has found that experiencing positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broadens our minds and helps us build psychological, social, and physical resources. What a gift we can help foster (and receive!) in these uncertain times.
In these especially fraught times, it’s important to keep in mind that, while the pandemic is impacting everyone, not everyone’s experience of the pandemic is the same. Start first with the intent to understand how others are impacted — which is an act of kindness in itself, and respond accordingly. The beauty of this approach is that it is a recipe for wiser living, pandemic or no. The simple truth is that we will foster better relationships and inspire more psychological safety with the people we work with (and live with) when we lead with kindness and care.