Does it pay to be nice?

Gandhian values
Last Updated 30 September 2016, 18:34 IST

The recent display of outstanding sportsmanship by two athletes at the Rio Olympics won the hearts of people the world over.

A few minutes into the semifinals of the 5,000-metre race, New Zealand athlete Nikki Hamblin fell and accidentally tripped up America’s Abbey D’Agostino. Their dreams of winning an Olympic medal were quashed and all the years of training went down the drain. Yet, instead of showing her anger and disappointment, Abbey helped Nikki up and said, “Come on, we have to finish this.”

They crossed the finish line much after the other athletes. But their kindness and sportsman spirit moved the Olympic jury into letting them compete in the finals. It seemed like their nice behaviour ultimately paid off.

What does it mean to be nice? How do I know if I am a nice person? Google suggested that I take an online test, and I did. Hypothetical situations were presented, prompting me to imagine how I would respond. Niceness, I learnt in the process, encompasses qualities like kindness, generosity, honesty and respect for others.

Fueled by curiosity, I started a poll on WhatsApp, asking my friends if they thought they were nice people. Most of them told me tales of how they had helped strangers, been honest at the most difficult of times and been generous to the poor. If everyone is so nice, then why does it feel at times like we live in a cruel, heartless world?

A ‘bing’ from my computer shook me out of my reverie. The result of my online test was ready. It said: “You have the potential to be nice”. “What?” I wondered out loud. I have the potential but I am not actually nice? Did this mean that I choose to do things that work to my convenience and advantage without caring about others? I wanted to find out more. Based on the online questionnaire, I broke 'being nice' into two parts – to be honest and to be loving. I asked people what they thought about the two traits.

Being honest

The story of Gandhi watching a play on King Harishchandra in his younger days and vowing to never swerve from the path of honesty and righteousness is one we have all heard. Being truthful at all times seems ideal. It saves us from the vicious cycle of lying and having to cover up with more lies when caught. But is it a valid life lesson in these times?

Satya Balakrishna, a software professional from Bengaluru, said “Honesty is as good a principle as it was a thousand years ago.” School teachers Hema and Anitha agree. “Honesty will always be the best policy,” they echo.

But my childhood friend Lekha thought differently. “You can't be honest all the time. Diplomacy works better,” she said. Her opinion was echoed by what author and health coach Karen Ann Kennedy wrote in her blog on Huffington Post: “If you know that your honest answer will hurt someone, you can soften your approach, unless, you are in an immoral and an unethical situation where only truth should be told.”

My heart seemed to agree with Karen. Suppose a child is singing horribly, would we want to tell him or her the truth? Probably not. We would, instead, tell the child that he or she sings wonderfully. It is dishonesty, sure, and we may not actually want to listen to it anymore, but we would still not want to hurt his or her feelings. Here, we give honesty some heart and paint it with a bit of perspective and kindness. Honesty has a moral binding, yes. But, we should use it carefully, with regard to people’s feelings.

To love is to be human

To be loving comprises all the things that niceness does – to care, to empathise, to help without expecting anything in return and to respect everyone.

I asked my 13-year-old son what his thoughts were. I was curious – what do kids these days think about love and empathy? “You mean Gandhian values?” he said, looking straight into my eyes. “Mom, these are more relevant today than ever before.” My husband, who was listening intently, joined in with his political views. I gathered from the two of them that Gandhian ideals are very much required today – if we practised a bit of kindness and generosity, almost all the problems in the world can be solved.

Take the Syrian refugee crisis, for instance, and the violation of human rights meted out to innocent people, or even the problems we face in our own country – everything could have been solved with a little empathy and no one had to die. It sounds incredibly simple and yet, it is easier said than done.

Don’t be a doormat

Prema, a HR executive in a leading firm, said that in today's world, we should also learn to be assertive.

Sudha, a stay-at-home mom, added, “When we are always nice to people, it often backfires. They take us for granted. That is when we need to put our foot down. Even though being nice is good, we should know where to draw the line.”

In a world that is highly competitive, being nice and respectful is not always possible. Niceness is a trait that, as Sudha observes, has never gone out of style. But it is not easy either.

In simple words, to be a Gandhian in today’s world means – to not lie in your resume, PhotoShop your pictures on Facebook or suck up to your boss for a bonus or promotion. As human beings, we are all wired to be good. We all have the potential to be nice people. Yet, we choose our paths, time and again, to suit our convenience.

We show our niceness in spurts of spontaneity like the Olympian who gave up her chance to win a medal to help her competitor who had fallen. She did not think if she had anything to gain by stopping to help the woman. She did it because she listened to her human instincts rather than the voice that screamed ‘medal’ inside her head.

By doing so, at the biggest sporting spectacle in the world, she proved that simple acts of kindness please not just those concerned, but everyone around. She had the potential to be good, and she tapped into it like we all must.

The Olympians won the prestigious Pierre De Coubertin medal, which is awarded to those who show exemplary sportsmanship. Most of us may not win medals for our acts of generosity or kindness but that is where the catch lies. Being nice hoping that it will pay off makes one selfish and is ultimately not so nice. Such acts need to be spontaneous, sincere driven by our morals and commanded by our heart. It does not pay to be nice because when you are nice, you don't expect to be paid.

Adapt the values

Gandhi is often interpreted too literally, feels Nataraj Huliyar, director, Centre for Gandhian Studies, Bangalore University.

“ There is need for fresh reinterpretation in the light of emerging ideologies, like feminism.”

Be the change you wish to see in the world, Gandhi said. If you want the world to be a kinder place, start with yourself. Be kind to yourself and those around you. We need to make nice behaviour our nature, irrespective of what we have to gain from it.

To be nice or not will be the question we will all have to answer every time, whether or not it will pay.A

(Published 30 September 2016, 14:40 IST)

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