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The Lemonade Factor: Is Kindness Contagious?
Dan Tomasulo, Phd
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” Camus
It had begun snowing and I stopped in the food store to get some provisions. On the checkout lane three people ahead was an elderly woman who rolled her cart away from the register without paying. She wasn’t making a getaway, just finding her way out the door. The cashier called for her supervisor and the manager came and took off after the guilty party. When she caught up with her, the woman seemed slightly dazed and confused, but insisted that she wouldn’t have left without paying. The incident began to escalate when another woman pushing her full cart out the door stopped, opened her wallet, and handed the manager a credit card.
“Please charge her bill to this,’ she said.
A man carrying a single bag stopped and offered to split the cost. Another man offered to help with her bags.
The manager apologized to the elderly woman saying it was the stores’ fault and she was sorry for any inconvenience. She thanked the people who’d offered to help, and said she’d take care of it. She then asked if they would help her get outside. The whole event took less than two minutes.
Why do strangers help one another? Why do we give our time and money to an unfamiliar person? According to some leading researchers, it is in our genes. Spontaneous kindness, generosity, good will, compassion, and gratitude all converge effortlessly. Altruism, it seems, is woven into our DNA.
It is survival of the kindest, which has the greatest value for the survival of the species. Self-interest has value at one level, yet kindness activates something known as “elevation.” It means that, just like watching someone behave badly turns us off, we get turned on, or elevated, by watching acts of kindness, or true character. Doing, watching, or hearing about good deeds activates the vagus nerve, which runs throughout our body connecting, among other things, our heart and brain. When activated it produces oxytocin, a hormone that evokes in us empathy, including the desire to be better, kinder, people.
The evolutionary psychologists would argue that this might have been a not-so random act of kindness: We are born to be kind. It’s in our genes.
Dan holds a PhD in psychology, an MFA in writing, and a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website Dare2BeHappy.com