The social psychology of kindness

The social psychology of kindness
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Karen Sternheimer

In my last post, I wrote about how the stress of animal care was causing workers to leave the profession and how I hoped that a short thank you note after my cat’s surgical procedure might be a small antidote to that stress.

I’ve been particularly prone to workplace stress since working as a restaurant server myself and working in retail during and shortly after college. I know what it’s like to be yelled at by a stranger for something you didn’t do or have no control over, and how it feels to be unable to do anything but smile even when it’s the last thing you want to do, something called emotional labor.

I’ve seen several incidents over the past few weeks that have reminded me how emotionally contagious stress and kindness are. Random acts of kindness may sound like a cliché, but science says it makes us, and perhaps the people around us, healthier and feel good. More on that in a minute…

First incident: I was waiting in line to go through US customs at the Montreal airport during a layover on my way back from Europe (Canadian cities and a few other cities have pre-clearance, which means you go through customs in a foreign country and don’t have to when the flight arrives in the US ). The line was very Some people began to worry about missing their flights and started lashing out first at others in line and then at the obnoxious staff who were trying to ferry passengers to onward flights that were about to depart. lines. This, of course, meant that the line was barely moving.

It was no surprise to me. I’ve been following the news all summer that international airports are facing long delays due to a persistent global labor shortage following the suspension of travel during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. I read about people waiting in lines for hours just to miss their flights. After reading this, I also checked how often the flights I was booked on were delayed, and it turned out to be more often than not.

Like most people, I don’t like standing in line, I had just gotten off a transcontinental flight and I was tired and hungry, just like everyone around me. As the crowd’s impatience grew, people started talking to no one in particular. “This is the worst airport I’ve ever flown through!” “I never I will use this airport again!

One man came straight up to me and asked, “Wouldn’t you hire more people with such long lines?” They obviously don’t know how to run an airport. I replied that there is a worldwide labor shortage and airports around the world face the same or worse circumstances. (Geez, haven’t you been watching the news? I thought to myself. What’s wrong with you? Why wouldn’t you pay attention to travel news before your trip? And why do you think it would help me to complain??? ?)

I was irritated by his and others’ irritation. The stress virus has spread (and probably another).

The second incident was similar: I was in a checkout line at a grocery store with about 5 people. The woman laughed when she saw the line and asked the man behind me, “How long are you waiting?” “About ten seconds,” he said. He was just in line. She paced the length of the line and then asked the person at the front of the line how long they had been waiting (about five minutes, they said. The line moved quickly).

The woman said she would never shop there again and they obviously didn’t want to hire anyone because they wanted the machines to take over. She has a job and would never quit, never told anyone in particular, even if she wanted to never working in a grocery store.

(I thought to myself, hmm, there’s a big poster outside that says they’re hiring and a table where they take applications at the door. How did you miss that? And how does anyone know there’s a labor shortage????) . I could feel my heart rate increase and my stress level rise. Just like at the airport, the line wasn’t as stressful as the others. complaints about the line.

Just as stress can be contagious, so can kindness. I thought about this at the grocery store: How can I be nice, especially to a cashier who is about to help an upset customer? I did my best to be extra polite and offered to help her pack the groceries and told her that I noticed things were busy but I hoped she was having a good day. She said she wanted to be busy, so her shift went by faster.

I can’t be sure that my attempt to be friendly had much of an effect on her, but it made me feel better and helped neutralize the stress I absorbed from another client. There is plenty of research to suggest that kindness benefits the actor mentally and physically, perhaps even more than the recipient. The study was published in 2017 Journal of Social Psychology and in 2018 a meta-analysis of kindness studies, published Journal of Experimental Social Psychology both conclude that the person performing the act of kindness experiences a stronger sense of well-being. in 2020 meta-analysis, published Psychological Bulletin found similar results. As several other studies have found, volunteering benefits the volunteer in terms of preventive health measures; Also, giving money to others lowered blood pressure. One study even found that the benefits of prosocial behavior can be linked to healthier genetic expression, which can have health benefits.

Research in the psychology of happiness is a relatively new but growing subdiscipline of social psychology. (More, including videos, at this site.) It would be interesting to see more research on the effects of kindness on third-party observers. I recently noticed someone at our local pool handing out homemade desserts to people who barely knew her. Even though I wasn’t the recipient of the gift (which was good because I try to avoid sweets), it made me feel good just to see other people receive an unexpected gift.

Being kind can be a difficult choice, especially when we are frustrated, scared, or angry. However, it may be the healthiest choice for you and those around you.

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