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The importance of being nice

A habit that may save your life


“If someone gets in your face and calls you a $%#$%, I want you to be nice.”
-Dalton “Road House”

My goal in writing this piece is to show how adopting a mindset of being nice will bring you happiness, inspire others to do the same, and how it may even save your life. I hope that after reading this you consider incorporating a be nice mindset into your life.

I’d like to first present some examples of how I try to incorporate this mindset into my life:

  1. On the road if someone cuts me off I gently hit my brakes and let it go.
  2. If I’m teaching someone a new topic and they ask the same question nth time, I’ll patiently answer it as if it were asked the 1st time.
  3. At an event with a speaker/panel I strive to ask a question where the answer could benefit the entire group.
  4. If I see a piece of trash near a trash can I’ll pick it up and throw it away.
  5. I eat a salad prior to most dinner meals.

These examples (although trivial) showcase that being nice can be applied in nearly any situation. The more you practice, the more you’ll find the habit unconsciously influencing your actions.

This mindset can influence your actions towards others, yourself and your environment. The key is to be mindful of your actions and reactions in various situations. Internalize “be nice” and use it like a mantra. You’ll then see it start driving your behavior in all aspects of your life.

I’d like to now go through the three benefits of adopting the be nice mindset.

> Benefit 1: Being nice will bring you happiness

It is no secret that when you are nice to someone or yourself, you feel good. You feel happy. Some situations are naturally more conducive to this habit, such as offering your seat to an elder person on the bus. Others are about doing the unexpected. For example spontaneously helping a stranger load a heavy item into their car at a shopping mall. Some situations call for restraint, like when you get cut off on the freeway and withhold your road rage. Or controlling your emotions when a coworker calls you out for a miscellaneous work issue in front of your peers/boss. Each situation will be different but the end result of achieving happiness will be consistent.

When doing something unexpected (assisting a struggling stranger) the sincere appreciation the ingenuous stranger shows is a very powerful stimulant for happiness. For that brief moment that person feels noticed and and that is certainly something you can smile about.

In a situation where something has already happened (you got cut off on the freeway) adversely reacting to this will bring more angst and anger. Why do this to yourself? The action of getting cut off has already happened. Your reaction should be to let it go. Think of it as you being so nice that you let this person cut you off to make them happy (more on this later). Your reaction has turned a negative feeling into a positive one and that is very conducive to your happiness.

In tougher situations (coworker calling you out) your natural reaction tends to be to protect yourself. You may get defensive, send a strong-worded email and the situation escalates. A small issue transforms into a big issue. This will certainly destroy any feelings of happiness on your end.

What if you instead acknowledge the mistake and compliment the person for calling you out. In this case the tone of the other person will likely change (they did not expect your “be nice” reaction). This puts your adversary on the spot. They’ll question their brash approach to the situation and may transform from being aggressive to helpful. Happiness will ensue as you just turned a negative situation into a positive one.

The biggest hurdle in this situation is overcoming the desire to do what is easy versus what is hard. The easy response is to retaliate with a negative attitude, the hard response is to be nice. You’ll have to be careful not to be susceptible to the easy (or natural) negative response. Being nice will feel very uncomfortable initially (these things have a tendency of being hard). Yet if you elevate yourself to be nice in this uncomfortable situation, a great feeling of happiness will flow through you.

> Benefit 2: You will inspire others to be nice

Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s Jolly Good Fellow gave an inspiring talk: “Search Inside Yourself” at Google. I've transcribed one of my favorite points:

…There are habits that are conducive for social skillfulness. The first is the habit of kindness. When looking at any human being your first thought should be: I want this person to be happy. If you have this mental habit coming effortlessly, it changes everything. It reflects unconsciously in your body, your face, your language, tone of voice and facial expressions. It will be picked up unconsciously by other people. And their perception will be: I like this person, I don’t know why, but I like this person. People will want to work with you, you will become successful…

Meng eloquently describes how the habit of being nice can lead to your own personal success in the workplace and beyond. Taking it one step further, I believe that by being nice you will inspire others to be nice as well.

It’s like when you are working out at the gym and you are struggling with some weight. When a member of the opposite sex comes by all the sudden that weight feels a lot lighter. Seeing someone be nice (either to you or someone else) has the same kind of stimuli by inspiring you to be nice as well. And so the snowball effect begins…

The trigger to inspire someone to be nice can be the smallest thing. Opening the door for someone, saying excuse me, giving a stranger a smile. The smallest trigger may connect with someone in a way you never intended or expected. All the sudden someones bad day becomes a not-so-bad day, and negative actions they may take in the future transform into positive ones.

An important takeaway from Meng is that he categorizes kindness as a habit. By forming a habit of being nice you unconsciously perform nice actions throughout your day and the number of people you influence can grow exponentially. It just takes one action to plant the being nice seed into someone. It’s a contagious habit.

> Benefit 3: It may save your life

In early February 2014 a tragedy took place in Orange County California. A young woman in her early twenties was beaten to death outside a nightclub by a group of people. Allegedly the entire altercation was sparked when the victim walked into the assailants group photo. This led to a verbal argument which escalated to someone throwing the first punch. In the end the victim was beaten to the ground and eventually died in the hospital from the injuries she sustained.

This event resonated with me for several reasons. On a personal level this young woman was a graduate from my alma mater (Chapman University), and although I did not know her, I very well could have passed by her on campus at one point in time. The second was how something so stupid and trivial (walking into someones group photo) can result in a lost life. How does it make any sense that in 21st century America a young woman can get beaten to death by a group of strangers when going out to a club?

Your life can change in seconds. The actions you take in those seconds can be a matter of life or death. As the young lady walked into the assailants group photo both parties began to exchange obscenities. Had someone just said “I’m sorry”, “excuse me”, “don’t worry about it”, I would not be writing about this tragedy. Just one person enacting the be nice mindset could have changed everything. The confrontation would not have developed and a life would not have been lost.

We are all going to be put into situations where our pride or patience is tested. We are naturally proud individuals. We don’t appreciate when someone calls us a name, cuts us off on the road or even looks at us the “wrong way”. To tolerate such provocations makes us look weak in the eyes of society. And who wants to be perceived as weak?

Yet how we react to these provocations can determine if we make it home that night. With an increased number of shootings and violence people are living on edge. You never know when the person you just provoked (or is provoking you) is carrying some sort of weapon, is crazy or is just looking to get into a fight. Is it worth yelling at someone and risk getting into an altercation where your life is threatened? Who cares if your “pride” has been tainted, just let it go, be nice.

About a year ago I was at a gas station inflating my car’s tires. I’m occasionally a bit OCD so I was taking my time making sure each tire was inflated to the optimal PSI level. As I reached the last tire a car flew in next to me and a man got out red-faced screaming at me for how long it was taking me to finish. I had no idea he was waiting and naturally I got pissed and started yelling back at him. Fortunately the situation did not escalate but I was certainly in a bad mood after the ordeal.

As I reflected on the situation I realized how wrong my reaction was. If this guy had a weapon or was looking to fight, I fell right into his trap. And what would I have been fighting for? For access to the tire air pump? Had I reacted nicely, maybe apologized, I would have caught this person off guard. He would likely have realized what a jerk he was being and may have cooled off. To be aggressive is to pour gasoline on the fire, to be nice is to take away the oxygen from the flames.

> Closing thought

Being nice is a habit that can be part of all aspects in your life. Whether to yourself or others, it’s a habit that can have a profound impact on your environment. It’s a mindset that you will have to consciously work on incorporating into your life, and one day it will transform into a habit.

Everyone has different approaches or reminders for getting into the mindset. Whether it is a visual reminder before you step out of your home, or being mindful throughout your day and catching yourself when emotions begin to negatively stir.

No matter how you get there don’t forget the importance of being nice, it really does change everything!

(Originally posted on Medium April 6, 2014)