Can kindness curb conflict? The science of the smile

Published 4:29 pm Friday, September 16, 2022

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I had been outside since 5:45 a.m., in 50-degree drizzle. My feet were soaked despite several changes of socks. My fellow outside poll observers, Republicans and Democrats alike, looked just as forlorn as we answered voters’ questions in Virginia during the 2018 election.
At about 2 p.m., a woman with three small kids in tow waved at us as she went in to vote. I loved seeing her – and other parents – bring their kids to the polls. “Thank you for being here!” she called to all of us as she emerged. My colleagues and I smiled at her and each other. We felt good, being part of the electoral process…cold as it was.
Fifteen minutes later, the woman reappeared. She hopped out of her SUV with a tray of Starbucks hot chocolates. “You all look cold, and I wanted to thank you.”
That was the best hot chocolate I’d ever tasted, and the warmest I’d been all day. But more importantly, I was touched by her kindness towards three total strangers.
A new University of Texas-Austin report provides a psychological explanation of what happened, with an experiment oddly similar to my experience. People were handed a cup of hot chocolate and told they could keep it or give it to someone else. Those who gave it to someone else reported a bump in their own happiness and an expected bump in the happiness of the recipient. The recipients did report a bump in happiness — but one higher than what the givers had anticipated. In other words, we underestimate the impact of our kind gestures.
Harvard Business Review reported a similar experiment with compliments, finding that, though we are happy to receive compliments, we may be reluctant to give them. Somehow, we think they will be seen as insincere or cheap. Again, we underestimate our ability to make others happy.
But these kindnesses and compliments are important, particularly now as we try to rebuild social fabric frayed by COVID isolation and toxic polarization.
We are wired with a need to feel valued and connected to others, which these unexpected kindnesses do. They raise our self-esteem and link us to each other. Research shows countless other kindness health benefits, from oxycotin reducing stress levels and blood pressure to serotonin increasing happiness.
Kindness is also contagious. Simply witnessing an act of benevolence lights up our brains positively and makes us more likely to replicate the kindness.
In fractious times, it’s a simple way to make life a little easier for everyone.
First, remind yourself that people definitely will appreciate you appreciating them. Then consider — and commit to — some research-backed options. Do a friendly check-in with potentially lonely friends via text or a call. Send a card describing what you admire about someone. Compliment a colleague on a task they’ve completed, the more specific about what you liked, the better. Smile as you pass strangers on the street. Add an extra bump to a tip. Post a kind comment on a website. Leave a thank you note for your letter carrier.
Trust the research. They’ll appreciate it more than you’ll know. And they just might pay it forward. We need this, right?
(Melinda Burrell, PhD, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a former humanitarian aid worker and now trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict. She is on the board of the National Association for Community Mediation, which offers resources for community approaches to difficult issues.)

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