“Is it me, or have people just gotten horrible lately?” The question came from my wife, Suzanna, just after an SUV blew by us at least 90 mph and then slalomed wildly between other cars across four lanes of traffic. When one of the other drivers had the temerity to honk in protest, a hand immediately appeared from the swerving SUV’s window and jabbed a middle finger into the sky. In that moment, it was hard to argue with the sense that we have slid backward a few notches on the social evolutionary scale.
It does seem that I witness more rudeness now than I can remember before in my whole life. We hear about people acting out on airplanes and in their workplaces and at grocery stores. In a recent visit to a hospital, it was sad to see a huge sign that has become all too common warning that abuse of healthcare workers and hospital staff will not be tolerated. When I see those kinds of signs I feel the same irritation that I feel in a public restroom when I see the one that says, “Please don’t put paper towels or other objects into the toilet.” I’m not mad at the sign. I’m angry with the knuckle-dragging mooks who made such signage necessary. And speaking of signs, remember when a drive in the country used to be a good way to relieve a little stress? Now it’s almost impossible to drive 15 minutes in any direction without rolling by homes flying flags that profanely announce their disapproval of politicians they didn’t vote for. I’m not sure when we got to the place in this culture when we became terrified that someone might actually drive by our houses without knowing exactly how we feel about everything, but here we are transplanting our social media rants into our front yards where we can’t be blocked by our embarrassed nieces and nephews.
It is in these times of despair at the loss of kindness and civility that I must remind myself that perception is reality and so what I focus on can seem like all there is to see. I tell myself that the news is depressing because it exists to tell us what breaks the pattern of what’s normal. It doesn’t report on planes landing safely and full of passengers who all got along just fine packed together for three hours and after landing even helped one another get large items out the overhead bins. Such courtesies and little acts of kindness aren’t really rare and if we would occasionally look up from doom-scrolling on our phones, we might actually see more of the tiny heroics of people who create good in the world and we might even be changed by it.
Consider for a moment that every act of kindness moves in three directions of influence. Whether one gives, receives or witnesses an act of kindness, the human brain reacts with a flood of serotonin, that feel-good neurotransmitter that boosts mood, immune function and makes us feel less stressed and more connected to others. A recent study on the effects of kindness showed that those who regularly engaged in acts of kindness reported less insomnia, lower levels of stress and relief of chronic pain. So, kindness does good not just when you give it or when you get it but even if you just see it.
Another study suggests that witnessing an act kindness significantly raises the chances that that person will act more altruistically themselves by such a degree that one act of kindness has the potential to affect up to other 125 people, many of whom will be similarly motivated to act kindly to someone else and start another ripple of positive influence.
The conclusion, you might think, is that we just need more kind people in the world. Not so. We already have all the people we need to make the world a better place or a worse one. What is needed is a change in our understanding and mindset about what kindness is and how it becomes more common. Every one of us is already a potential agent of kindness and joy but not because of our DNA or our Meyers-Briggs profile. It’s simply what we choose to see and then what we choose to do about it.
Kindness isn’t a trait, it’s an action. Its existence in the world isn’t dependent on a personality but on a habit. The potential for the world to be a kinder place depends on every person in any moment that we share with other people. It really doesn’t matter if not you’re a celebrity or a CEO of an international corporation or you don’t have any followers on Instagram. Without any of those things you have the potential, on this day in your life, to affect 125 people in a way that will relieve their stress and make them (and you) healthier and more hopeful than they would have been today without your example. All it takes is a simple three-word question that that my wife raised that day: “Is it me?”
I’ve got great news. It is.