Understand Other People

Better communication through a better understanding of behavior

The Multiplier Effect

Kindness begets kindness

What’s the point of spending time doing nice things for others? Is it purely a feel-good experience for the nice person, or is there a greater impact on others, and on the world in general? In fact, it is official: Researchers have shown that generosity is contagious. And not only is it contagious, but one act of kindness is actually shown to breed another act of kindness, and so on. Kindness can multiply and move on from person to person.

The researchers actually set up a game where selfishness made more sense than cooperation, and in spite of this, acts of giving “tripled over the course of the experiment by other subjects who are directly or indirectly influenced to contribute more,” wrote political scientist James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, and medical sociologist Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University.

Their findings, published March 8, 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are the latest in a series of studies the pair have conducted on the spread of behaviors through social networks.

What does this mean to all of us? If we look at each of our days, how many times a day do we engage in deliberate acts of kindness? As a personal experiment, it could be helpful to act like a detective and view what’s going on in the world around you.

I decided to launch my own experiment on this front and gauge, as I went through my day, how many times I acted out of kindness versus hurrying, or feeling stressed and not being as kind – and how many times others acted toward me in a kind way.

I found an interesting conclusion. When I set my mind to being kind – doing things like holding the door longer than 5 seconds waiting for someone, smiling and saying “hello” to people in a store or walking down the street, waiting for people to move in front of me as I was driving down the street, offering change to a person digging in their purse or pockets at the counter, and calling someone I hadn’t spoken to in a while just to check in and say “hello” – I found that there seemed to be more people responding in kind, with kindness.

When I deliberately acted in a not-so-nice manner, keeping a scowl on my face and ignoring everyone around me, the rest of the world was so mean! People shut doors in my face and I sat and clocked 7 minutes waiting at an intersection for someone to let me get into traffic!

Could I possibly have been bringing out the best and worst in people? It seems from James Fowler’s comment that the answer is likely “yes.” We can influence the people and the events around us by our actions.

I’ve long believed this to be true, but it was exciting to find research to support the premise. It was also interesting to set out in a deliberate fashion to see if I could prove or disprove the theory. The interesting side effect is that I felt so much better on the days I chose the kindness route. I stood taller, I felt better and I was overall much happier than when I chose the not-so-nice days. On the not-so-nice days I wanted to avoid people, I walked more hunched over and almost felt as though I was hiding from life.

It seems that kindness is contagious, but it also seems we reap side benefits from engaging in acts of kindness. It’s better for us. It’s better for others. And, apparently, it’s better for our world.

 

Beverly D. Flaxington teaches at Suffolk University.

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