Kindness Is the New Cool
As we stumble through this bitterly contentious moment in our national life, tiny sprouts of good will are sprouting all over.
Cable Neuhaus March 17, 2020
Not that I look to Lady Gaga for guidance on anything other than music, but late last year, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, the pop superstar said something simultaneously obvious and powerful: “Kindness heals the world. It’s what brings us together — it’s what keeps us healthy.” Ah, that Gaga genius revealed! With apologies to the Beatles, kindness is all ya need. These days in particular, I think we hunger for it.
As we stumble through this bitterly contentious moment in our national life, I’ve begun to wonder if, astonishingly, kindness isn’t about to break out. Tiny sprouts of it, all over. There are signs that cannot be ignored.
Without making any effort, I’ve spotted hundreds of accounts similar to the one about a Florida real-estate agent who paid off all student lunch debt at a local school. Last November, Coca-Cola sponsored a huge social-media campaign to promote World Kindness Day. Netflix has renewed its Kindness Diaries series. Ellen DeGeneres paused one day to lecture her TV audience about kindness. Heck, I recently checked into a hotel room stocked with Kind snack bars and Bee Kind bath products.
And have you noticed the scores of organizations (like the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation) and websites (like kindness.org) focused entirely on doing good, behaving humanely? As a popular new t-shirt proclaims, “Kindness is the new cool.” I hope so.
Once, years ago, I began to write a book about kindness and civility (silly me), but I let it go. Maybe I ought to try again. Why? Because when I went exploring for kindness lit in advance of producing this column, I found precious little. Most of what’s been published is aimed at business leaders and young kids. Practically zip for us folks in between. What? We don’t need coaching? Sadly, we do. Acts of kindness don’t always spring forth organically.
Probably because of today’s hyperpartisan environment, millions of Americans now regularly argue the virtues of compassion and kindness — often, needless to say, with differing points of view. Okay. But when The Atlantic published an online essay several months ago headlined “America’s Epidemic of Unkindness,” I thought, “Nope — that’s definitely misleading.”
What sparked that piece was UCLA’s launch of the Bedari Kindness Institute, which was enabled by a $20 million gift from Matt Harris and his wife, Jennifer. Matt Harris, founder of New York-based Global Infrastructure Partners, told me that, regrettably, “We live in a world where it’s easy to be disconnected, focused on ‘What’s in it for me.’” I asked if he’s ever been guilty of bad behavior in his own workplace. “I’ve sometimes been quick to judge, not kind,” he acknowledged. “But the kinder I’ve gotten, the more productive I’ve become.”
Daniel M.T. Feller, who is director of the new institute at UCLA, said he expects “there will be a lot of enthusiasm among students” to sign up for courses. “Nationalism is resurgent in the country,” he said. “Our response is to want to build walls. That makes all the problems worse.” At the nascent kindness institute, the curriculum won’t be prescriptive, Feller said. “It’s not about saying to people, ‘You should be nice.’ That’s superficial. It’s about understanding what leads to positive social interactions.”
Might UCLA’s program help create a kinder world? Maybe. Meanwhile, I think it’s a good omen that an uncredited quote is currently circulating on the internet: “To be kind is more important than to be right.” I’m not sure that that’s true, but in this intensely polarized era, I’ll take it.