Survival of the Kindest?

When I think of human evolution the first thing that usually comes to mind is the phrase “survival of the fittest”, and with it the assumption that human beings are hard-wired to be selfish in order to survive. But apparently this was not Charles Darwin’s phrase or even his theory. In fact, a lesser known element of Darwin’s theory was that sympathy is the strongest human instinct and one of the main reasons we have been so successful as a species. Modern scientists are building on this idea, studying the way in which our compassion, altruism and nurturing traits can make us healthier, more resilient and more respected.*

This week I started a new job and as I began to take my kindness project in this new workplace I hoped that sympathy, and not selfishness, would prove to be the better character trait to “survive and thrive”. My first week was hectic and overwhelming. Simply figuring everything out and getting everything done meant I had little time or energy for kind acts, but I did them anyway. I bought biscuits for the staff kitchen, washed coffee cups left in the sink, made a huge effort to learn everyones names and greet them with a smile each day, always expressed my gratitude when someone helped me out in any small way and offered to help others whenever I felt able. I also made sure to be kind to myself and simply say no when I felt taking on a task would be too stressful. (There is a difference between being kind and being a push-over.)

Most importantly though, I made an effort to listen and understand where people where coming from. Almost everyone was extremely welcoming and friendly, and for those that were not I tried to listen even harder. Rather than judging them or reacting in anger, I tried to read between the lines, find the reasons behind their behaviour and be compassionate even when they hadn’t done the same for me. I know many consider it a weakness not to “assert” yourself when someone is rude, and in some cases that is true, but a lot of the time it only creates more issues and it certainly doesn’t make us happier or less stressed.

I think most people find it incredibly difficult to continue being negative and unkind when you are persistently and genuinely kind and positive towards them. And once a group of people have all started to be kind, sympathetic and compassionate towards one another, there is no doubt that they can achieve far more than they could with an “every man for himself” mind-set.

* University of California, Berkeley (2009, December 9). Social scientists build case for ‘survival of the kindest’. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 12, 2011, from­ /releases/2009/12/091208155309.htm