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How a ‘kindness contagion’ improves lives, especially now


Recently I’ve been on a mission to both find and create more kindness in my world, if only because the news headlines — even personal encounters — are too frequently mean and mean-spirited. I’m thinking of teenage and grown-up bullies, the use of slurs and other hateful language. I’m thinking of the driver who rushed into a parking spot I was backing into — and then flipped me the bird. Thanks, guy.

But life’s not all about sourpusses and sour grapes. Not long ago, I was waiting in a long line at my favorite bakery, which makes some amazing scones. The delicious pile in the glass case dwindled quickly as those in the long line ahead of me snapped them up, until there was just one perfect beauty remaining — and one woman ahead of me. To my everlasting joy, she chose a croissant, so when I got to the counter I pointed to the last scone and declared, “I’ll take that.” No sooner had I spoken than the fellow behind me cried out: “Hey, that’s my scone! I’ve been waiting in line for 20 minutes!” Which he had been — behind me.

I surprised both of us when I didn’t respond with, “Sorry, it’s mine!” Instead, I countered: “Would you like half?” After a moment of shocked silence, he accepted my offer and one-upped my spontaneous act of generosity. “Why don’t I buy another pastry and we can share both?” We then sat down on a nearby bench to break bread. While it turned out we had almost nothing in common — from our jobs, ages, political views or marital status — we’d shared a moment of connection and a simple kindness. I felt happy and, frankly, wanted more of that feeling.

I probably experienced a “helper’s high,” which is what Melanie Rudd, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Houston, calls the boost we get from being kind. Much of Rudd’s research into understanding what makes us happy has focused on this aspect of giving, which she calls “impure altruism.” The “act of helping others and seeing others happy . . . gives us this warm glow,” she says, which benefits us.

Seen from this vantage point, “it’s hard to do something truly altruistic because we always feel good about it ourselves after we’ve performed the act of kindness,” she says. Not surprisingly, she told me, we want more of that feeling, which comes from behaving in a kind or generous manner. Even people who spend money on others — rather than themselves — experience greater feelings of happiness.

I’d really never thought that someone else’s good behavior might rub off on me.

Then I recalled recently waiting to buy a coffee a week before my scone-sharing interaction when a customer in front of me, whom I didn’t know and hadn’t even talked to, told the barista that he’d pay for my beverage. He said he just did that “from time to time. It makes me feel good.” I thanked him profusely, feeling as if I’d been given a gift much more expensive than one that had cost $2.64. I wondered: Was my willingness to share a scone some days later somehow related to this gift of coffee?

Possibly. Jamil Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, has spent years studying how kindness can be transmitted. “We find that people imitate not only the particulars of positive actions, but also the spirit underlying them,” according to his 2016 article in Scientific American. “This implies that . . . kindness itself is contagious, and that . . . it can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way.” For instance, he found that people made larger charitable gifts when they believed others were generous “than when they thought people around them were stingy.” Even more interesting, Zaki learned that when people cannot afford to donate, “an individual’s kindness can nonetheless trigger people to spread positivity in other ways.”

All of which made me think about some of the GoFundMe campaigns I’ve supported: If I see good friends giving about $50 or $100 on Facebook, I’ll probably give that as well; if they are donating less, I give less. Zaki believes this is rooted in our “desire to be part of a group,” which gives us a sense of safety and identity.

I was pondering Zaki’s research when I went to a bookstore event for novelist Tayari Jones, who was discussing her book, “An American Marriage.” Jones, who had been introduced by ­best-selling novelist Lee Smith, started her talk by praising Smith.

Earlier in her career, Jones said, “no one wanted my free book” when she was trying to give it away at a book fair. She had been on the verge of tears when she saw Smith, surrounded by fans, and introduced herself. “Lee was so warm and hugged me, and said: ‘Where’s your book? Where’s your booth?’ ” Smith invited Jones to her table, where she handed out the younger author’s book as a package with her own. “She just took me in,” Jones said. It was clear the small act of kindness had a profound influence on her.

Afterward, I asked Jones about that moment: Had she ever done someone else a similar kindness? Yes, she replied, and told me how she’d recently reached out to a younger writer whose work she happened to encounter and helped her take some steps to get published.

That is what’s known as the “kindness contagion,” a term used by Stanford’s Zaki, who has written about and studied this phenomenon.

“When we see other people around us acting in generous or kind or empathic ways, we will be more inclined to act that way ourselves,” he says.

So for the next month, I’m going to smile more often at my friends to see whether they return the smile. If Zaki is correct, people are going to try to conform to my behavior. Call it my own mini “kindness contagion.” It could be catching.

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