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It pays to be nice

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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The old cliché that nice guys finish last is commonly thrown around when it seems like the world has treated us unfairly. Perhaps part of the reason that saying has stuck around through the years is that experience would seem to back it up. But does that mean that it really is in our best interest to go through life as selfish, mean, and ruthless people?

Fortunately, it does not. New research from Dr. Mitch Prinstein, a professor and director of clinical psychology at UNC Chapel Hill, demonstrates that nice guys (and girls) don’t have to finish last. We just buy into that idea because it’s often true in one of our most formative periods of life. As Sarah Maslin Nir writes for the New York Times, the kinds of qualities that make one popular early in life and in adulthood—sharing, kindness, openness, etc—simply aren’t prized in adolescence. There, “status born of power and even notorious behavior” reign supreme.

As Dr. Prinstein found, however, “Those who were highest in status in high school, as well as those least liked in elementary school, are ‘most likely to engage in dangerous and risky behavior.'” Essentially, if your teens are the best years of your life, it might not speak well about who you are as an adult.

Conversely, the study also found that the kind of life that leads to being liked outside those adolescent years “creates opportunities for learning and for new kinds of life experiences that help somebody gain an advantage.” It turns out that being nice to others isn’t just a byproduct of an easier life but can actually help to create that better life.

If that’s true, though, then why does it so often seem like we’re penalized for being kind to others? Part of it is simply the fact that we live in a fallen world where everyone goes through times of hardships and persecution to some extent. Jesus was clear that following him would not save us from such a fate (John 15:18–21) and that we shouldn’t be surprised when those trials come.

I think an equally important reason, however, is that we tend to remember the times that we feel as though we were wronged far more clearly than the times where the opposite was true. As a result, our interpretation of the world around us will be consistently skewed towards the negative unless we actively try to view things from a more positive perspective. If you doubt that’s true, just think back to the last time you felt like you were treated unfairly. Now try and remember a time where you were given the credit you deserved. Which memory is more vivid and emotionally charged? For me, at least, the negative experiences have always stood out much more clearly than the positive.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. John Green could have been writing from the depths of my soul when he stated “The degree to which I am blessed staggers me . . . the degree to which I take that for granted shames me.” The cure to the belief that kindness is never rewarded in this life is to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” and allow him to grant us the perspective we so desperately need (2 Corinthians 10:5).

As Richelle E. Goodrich quipped, “You can add up your blessings or add up your troubles. Either way, you’ll find you have an abundance.” So let God help you focus on the blessings instead of the troubles, remembering that the latter don’t have to outweigh the former. When we do, it will go a long way towards helping us live as the sort of kind and compassionate people his word calls us to be (Ephesians 4:23). Will that describe you today?