“It is true that when we harm others, we harm ourselves; but it is just as true that when we help others, we also help ourselves.” – Desmond Tutu
It has been a tough time to be an Optimist. The events in Washington DC this week come after a year that featured a global pandemic, economic shocks and disarray, the start of a racial reckoning, and all the personal grief, pain, and anxiety that followed. In our Thursday editorial staff meeting, we talked frankly about how we wanted to treat these events on The Optimist Daily. Our goal is to focus on solutions, help our readers find a way to reframe challenges into opportunities and by doing so, inspire positive emotional contagion that might spread out into the world as a salve to the cynicism and fear evoked by headlines that dominate our newsfeeds.
Words matter. What we read in digital media impacts how we act in real life. For today’s Optimist View, I thought the most “Optimist Daily” approach to this challenging week that caped a trying year would be to focus on the healing forces of kindness and compassion and share some resources that can take you further into these areas. Because being nice has intrinsic rewards.
Social Contagion and Human Nature
First of all, kindness and compassion are contagious. In Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009), James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis document how behaviors can spread among social networks, just as viruses do. This can be a prosocial behavior like kindness, or it can be an antisocial behavior like being rude. We are each a node of influence on those around us, and we can decide how to use that influence. This is also the premise behind Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel, “Pay it Forward” (made into a movie of the same name) and a key aspect of micro-finance models, like Grameen America, that have proven highly effective in lifting under-resourced individuals out of poverty.
Last spring when we all first went into lockdown, we wrote about the power of positive emotional contagion. I invite you to revisit that article!
You may be thinking that only saintly people who have somehow been anointed by a higher calling have the wherewithal to act in selfless ways, but you would be wrong. More and more research has documented the innately prosocial characteristics of the human species. Datcher Keltner, the founder of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, is among the most prolific researchers of this new area of study. In The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness (2010), he compiles much of this research and argues persuasively that we are basically built as a social species.
The only reason we don’t read more about the nice things people do for each other is that we take them for granted. Things are supposed to run smoothly in our households, our communities, our towns, and our nations. It’s unremarkable because that’s the usual state. It’s the rare breach in the social order that sticks out, and demands we pay attention. Perhaps we ought to pay as much attention to the healing of these ruptures, even if they take time and don’t make it to the headlines.
The Compassion Muscle
Just as our biceps grow the more we lift, our kindness and compassion muscles grow the more we use them. Throughout his life, Thupten Jinpa (the Dalai Lama’s primary English translator) has studied the connections between science and compassion. In the excellent book, A Fearless Heart, Jinpa builds off a landmark lecture given at Stanford Medical School to explain how we can take a scientific approach to train our compassion muscles to relieve stress, fight depression, improve our health, achieve our goals, and change our world.
Being kind and showing compassion can have tremendous physical and emotional rewards on the person who uses this “compassion muscle”. We’ve written about the aura that kindness bestows on the kind actor, and the practice of compassion has benefits that accrue systemically throughout our bodies and minds. Kindness and compassion can act as a shield against bitterness and ill will. In fact, simply being kind with no intent of personal gain not only activates the brain’s reward areas but also activates other brain regions as well. It’s linked to happiness, contentment, joy, and well-being – all feeling states in short supply these days.
Random Acts of Kindness – in an era of social isolation
Also on the list were: ditching plastic water bottles, saying “hi” to strangers, and having a kind commute that avoided acting out any road rage. All great suggestions, but relics of the before times when we spent lots of time away from home.
There are several gems on the list that deserve to be repeated and don’t require being out and around strangers. I’m just going to list them here:
- Third act: Offer the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to jump to conclusions, isn’t it? But instead of judging someone prematurely, consider other scenarios and give them time to explain. You’ll keep your own space even-keeled in the process.
- Fourth act: Give someone your full attention. Consider this quote by the French philosopher and activist Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” How true is that! Ignore your phone and give someone your full attention—they will surely appreciate it.
- Seventh act: Be inclusive. Consider what it feels like to be left out, and think about inviting that person who may seem on the fringe. It might mean a heck of a lot to that person and will most likely make you feel great.
- Ninth act: Give yourself a break. After all, kindness should include you too.
That’s all I’ve got for this morning! Have a sweet day, and be kind to yourself.