… and the money, and better health, and more happiness. It turns out that you should be good to get ahead, as MF explains.
By Joel Snape
Like most people, I think I’m a reasonably nice person. I hold doors open and offer seats to elderly people, sometimes carry prams onto buses and almost never tut at people who can’t use a supermarket self-checkout properly. I even give street charity collectors a sympathetic head-shake instead of a snarl.
On the other hand, living in a big city doesn’t exactly promote niceness. I’ve been known to barge past people who violate the stand-left/walk-right rule on escalators. I glare at anyone who leaves their bag on the seat on a bus and have been known to bristle noticeably during MF meetings. I have grumbled things to the back of taxi drivers’ heads.
So I’ve always had a niggling feeling that while I’m quite nice, I could be nicer. And when I discovered there’s a huge body of research suggesting being nicer could make me fitter, happier and more productive, I was sold. Funnily enough, so were my MF colleagues. I’d try to be nicer for a month, we agreed, to see if I could reverse the age-old truism that nice guys are the gazelles of the human safari, destined to be picked off by the jackals who push in at the bar and cheat on their girlfriends. I’m going to be nicer if it kills me, while hoping that it actually makes me stronger.
The first step is the easiest, though it’s also exactly the sort of thing I would normally dismiss as hippy nonsense: making a Gratitude List. Gratitude, according to MF muscle expert Charles Poliquin, is a “mindset incompatible with anger and stress”, and to cultivate it I should be writing down a page of things I’m grateful for before going to bed. This will, apparently, activate my normally sedentary right brain, lower my stress levels and help me sleep better, at the minor expense of making me feel like a bit of a tool.
It’s slow going at first. I start with obvious things like “my lovely girlfriend” and “not living in Somalia”, but I swiftly lift my game with the esoteric likes of “bacon”, “being born in a period of huge technological advancement” and “a job where I get free protein shakes”. As hard as it is to believe, this does make me feel better. Focusing on the good bits of my (admittedly quite good) life pushes the usual negative thoughts about my workload, health and mortgage worries straight out of my head.
I give my girlfriend an extra-long pre-bed squeeze — “appropriate” touching can lower blood pressure and improve your immune system by stimulating production of the hormone immunoglobulin A — and drift into a blissful sleep. This is going well.
Not surprisingly, the office is a tougher environment for niceness. Tempers get frayed, work needs doing, phone calls have to be fielded and my offers of soothing post-meeting hugs are swiftly turned down. I make do with handshakes for everyone, because these apparently stimulate the brain’s cranial nerves, reducing the body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol and increasing production of the feel-good hormone oxytocin.
I also make an effort to chat and suggest outings to the pub. According to a paper published in the Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, feeling your sense of social connectedness is under threat can lead to a temporary drop in IQ, while a sense of loneliness can be a predictor of early death. I make coffee for colleagues and try not to shout at freelancers when they file copy late.
It does make me feel slightly better and, apparently, it isn’t just my usual smugness.
“When you do something for someone else, your brain produces dopamine,” says Dr David Hamilton, author of Why Kindness Is Good For You. “It makes you feel happy, and gives you the feeling that what you’re doing is right.” It also releases oxytocin, which has been linked to various health benefits including lowered blood pressure and reduction in harmful free radicals and inflammation. After two weeks, I’m radiating calm and positivity, even if my to-do list is the length of a small yacht.
There’s a problem with this, of course, and it’s one 15th-century philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli would have spotted instantly. Though it’s nicer to be loved than feared, it’s not as effective for getting things done.
According to a study in the Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, being generous to peers can boost your prestige, while being surly and self-centred to members of another group decreases respect and admiration, but increases the perception of your “dominance” within your group. In the study, dominant people were more likely to be picked for leadership roles — so being nice might not be the best bet for getting a promotion.
“Being too generous often comes at a cost to one’s position of strength or power,” says Robert Livingston, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management in the US and co-author of the study. “Nice guys don’t make it to the top when their group needs a dominant leader in a time of conflict.”
Similarly, researchers at the University of Notre Dame in the US examined “agreeableness” using self-reported survey data and found men who measured below average earned about 18 percent more — $9130 more annually in their sample —than their “nicer” counterparts. And then there’s the question that plagued me through my teen years: does being too nice doom you to a life of having your girlfriends stolen by men who wear sunglasses indoors?
Upsettingly, the answer is “maybe”.
In one study of 191 men who completed a questionnaire on their “agreeableness” and dating history, the biggest arseholes reported having more casual relationships. In another, published in the journal Sex Roles, women reported that a potential romantic partner could put them off by being too sweet. This isn’t a problem for me — my girlfriend claims to like it that I’m now more thoughtful— but it’s a worrying trend.
After these revelations I’m mildly disheartened, almost enough to make me forget the whole thing. I’m not particularly interested in feeling slightly better and sleeping a bit easier if it’s going to make me a socially undesirable doormat, and there’s no point in reducing my blood pressure if it’s going to skyrocket because of all the extra work I’m doing. For a few days, I flirt with going back to bristling and grumbling.
Fortunately, it’s at this point that an email conversation leads me to Neil Strauss, author of The Game, “pick-up artist” and expert on so-called Nice Guy Syndrome. His take on the subject makes a lot of sense and not just for people who’ve seen too many romantic comedies.
“Most guys who define themselves as ‘too nice’ only behave nicely because they want everybody to like them and don’t want anyone to think badly of them,” Strauss says. “Don’t mistake being fearful and weak-minded for being nice.” In other words, it’s fine to be nice — as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons.
This has recently been borne out by evolutionary theory, which has struggled with the question of why “niceness” (or altruism, as it’s scientifically known) hasn’t been wiped out by natural selection. One plausible explanation came from an experiment carried out in the US involving a computerised virtual fish tank. Users could introduce new life forms, giving them rules to govern their behaviour over several generations, to observe whether their species thrived or died out among the other life forms.
According to tech expert Winn Schwartau, the life form that consistently dominated over time played by two rules: 1. My species will always play nice, I will never initiate aggressive behaviour and we will make every attempt to co-operate and work with you and everyone in our fish tank. 2. If you mess with me, I will annihilate you without warning.
This makes perfect sense to me — and to the US State Department, which regularly uses Schwartau as a consultant and apparently uses a similar system in its own foreign policy. It has even trickled down to the US Marine Corps, where it turns out that even those paragons of mental toughness, drill sergeants, are being encouraged to be nicer, thanks to a program designed by the University of Pennsylvania. Participants are taught to be more grateful and generous, to “hunt for the good stuff”
and to take it easy on soldiers who don’t immediately make the grade. They’re also taught to avoid “catastrophic thinking” (focusing on irrational worst-case scenarios), see the best in situations and be generally optimistic.
Buoyed by the idea that I’m keeping company with drill sergeants, I tweak my approach to cater for situations where turning the other cheek will only get me a slap. I’m firm but fair with freelancers. At the pub with my colleagues, I’ll get the first round, but I’m not above pointing out when it’s their turn. And I still don’t talk to street charity collectors.
It works. Freed of the nagging sense that people might be taking advantage of me, my niceness ramps up to previously unheard-of levels. I email friends I haven’t seen in a while and arrange to go out. I call my gran. I go to my cousin’s birthday party and am pleasantly surprised to have a nice time. According to a meta-analysis of lifestyle satisfaction surveys from the Journal Of Socio-Economics, seeing friends and family regularly is “worth” as much as $95,000 in terms of the extra money you’d need to earn for the same self-reported quality of life.
I give up my seat on the train and carry people’s shopping. I do some gardening for an elderly neighbour because, according to a series of studies published in the journal Psychological Science, spending your free time on others boosts your sense of self-effectiveness and “time affluence”, making you feel like you’ve got more free time, not less. I take a load of clothes to Oxfam, prompted by studies in which volunteers who gave to charity rather than spending money on themselves reported increased happiness throughout the day. I’m sleeping better, feeling better and high-fiving people as I walk through the office. I can’t believe I haven’t been doing this for years.
Towards the end of my month-long experiment, I find a quote from Pat Summitt, the most successful US college basketball coach of all time, that sums up my new approach perfectly. “It’s a lot easier to start tough and get nicer than it is to start nice and get tough.” Amen, Pat. Amen.
Nice Up Your Life
Three simple steps to harnessing the power of niceness.
1 Be grateful
End each day with a Gratitude List. Writing down just three or four things you’re grateful for will calm you down and help you sleep easier.
2 Stay in touch
Missing friends? Pick up the phone: a study at the University of Notre Dame in the US found enduring friendships were in contact at least every 15 days.
3 Act at random
Dr David Hamilton recommends random acts of kindness — say, paying for a stranger’s coffee — to flood you with oxytocin and pick you up. It’ll improve your heart health too.