Mind Matters — Good Deeds May Be Better Than We Think

In a chilling rain, I decide, “Eh, I won’t get out of my car to get that nice hot tea. I’ll use the drive-in window.” Dutifully, I follow the arrows on the asphalt. Suddenly, a car speeds up from another entrance and cuts in front of me. I beep my horn—no, I don’t lean on the horn—just beep enough to communicate to the rude driver, “Hey, what are you doing?” I fume a bit and consider how inconsiderate the person sitting in front of me is. I create judgmental stories about his or her narcissism as I witness the driver being served. Ah, my turn now. The server hands me my chai, but astonishes me with her words spoken with a broad smile: “Oh, no charge—the person ahead of you has graciously paid for your order and apologizes for having cut you off. Have a good day!”

Wow, a gracious kind deed indeed! I have no idea who the driver was and we will most likely never meet. Yet this act in anonymity was transformative. My attitude reversed itself: the critical negative thinking and the angry feelings dissolved. You would have thought the low gray sky spouted rainbows.

The irony of all this is, of course, that no one else is responsible for our feelings, for our emotional reactivity. Even when we feel wronged in a situation, we are still responsible for calming ourselves and not jumping out of our skins. My emotional reactivity in this case took the form of judgmental fantasizing. If I were unable to let my preoccupation go (even without the apology), this kind of stewing could be unhealthy. Evidence from medical research shows that prolonged stress antagonizes our physical health.

The sooner we are able to “equilibrate” and get back to a less stressful state of being, the better. We all need to learn responsibility for our own self-soothing. However, what a celebration of humanity when someone performs an act of restitution after having acted inappropriately. It is an affirmation of what is best in being human.

While we all have the capacity for acting unkindly even going full throttle to behaving with evil brutality, we also have the choice to develop what is highest in us. And guess what? The idea that we actually do have a greater desire to do good is not a guess. Scientists are discovering that we appear to be hardwired for choosing kindness. We naturally desire relationship and connection; it is unnatural and against our inclination to life, for example, to kill another. We need to be trained to kill, because it goes against our basic instincts.

Scientists are also studying how our brains register more happiness and satisfaction when we give than when we get. So perhaps, as delighted as I was to received the gift of tea, the anonymous apologizer who provided this kindness may have left the drive-in window feeling even more satisfied.

Who knows how long the ripple effects of kindness continued that day? How can we reflect on our actions every day and make choices that allow us to grow more fully into our own humanity, our wholeness? When we give to others, when we smile, say kind words, we are not only “doing unto others,” we are actually, simultaneously, “doing unto ourselves.” “Practice random acts of kindness” notes the bumper sticker. Now brain scans prove the cliché to be to our advantage.