August 23, 2018

Contagious Kindness

Every year, around this time, we experience the gust of strong Westerly winds across our Shire.

The Westerlies – the winds of change – are famous for three things:

Firstly, they tend to bring the final cold snap of winter dryness – you know that crisp cold air that gets into your ears and your bones. That one week where we wonder why our houses, cafes, offices and shops are not built to keep heat in.

Secondly, they bring the jellyfish to the east coast of Australia. I don’t think anyone is especially a fan of the jellyfish, however, they do hold a special place for all that can be achieved without a brain.

And finally, they seem to bring the final dose of a miserable human state that has cold and flu-like symptoms.

The Westerlies got me at the end of this week. I was cold, unable to use my brain, and suffering some cold and flu-like nastiness.

As I quietly plotted the demise of whichever anonymous passer-by had sneezed or coughed in my direction, a colleague made me a snack for comfort – an unsolicited act of kindness.

In that moment of misery, where I was slouched in my office, like an animal and basically using my chest as a shelf to stabilise my laptop and catch the crumbs of the vegemite cruskits, I realised this: I didn’t really FEEL sick any more.

Sure my bones were still a bit achy…but someone had gotten up out of their chair, moved to the kitchen, prepared some cruskits and vegemite, added love, put them on a plate and gave them to me. I had caught their kindness, and it was way more powerful than the virus or bacteria that was at play in my lymphatic system.

So I got to researching whether you could, technically, ‘catch good feels’. It turns out that there is a body of fairly compelling science which says that good feelings are contagious. The field of research is called ‘moral elevation’ and it looks at how mood and feelings of altruism are increased when you perform, experience, or even just witness, acts of kindness.

One theory, published in the Scientific American, is that people value being at the same level of altruism as those around them. The study found that when people realised that their opinions matched those around them, the brain regions associated with ‘reward’ were activated (which probably explains peer pressure in a sentence, too). It follows that when people learn other people act kindly around them, they are more disposed to kindness.

And here is an extra bit of encouragement. In seeking to understand why volunteerism is on the rise in the so-called “me” generation, researchers from the University of California have found that ‘moral elevation’ does not only cause feelings to elevate but that it actually converts to action where there is an opportunity to do good.

“Good works,” said St. Vincent de Paul, and he was right.