On a busy street in central Hong Kong, a car pulled out of a building as I walked past it. The driver stopped the car and let me pass. He looked at me, smiled, and gestured for me to go first. “What a gracious man!” I thought to myself. I know what he did was just an act of common courtesy but at that moment, I was touched by his graciousness. I perked up that instant and was in a good mood for the rest of the day. An act of grace lasting no more than 10 seconds from a stranger can turn my so-so day into a great one. Surely this must be one of the most economical way to generate positive emotions in ourselves and other people!
Where Is Kindness in the Modern World?
How often do we notice such act of kindness in our daily life? Are we too busy to notice them? Or perhaps there are so few such acts now in our busy multi-tasking lifestyles? Do we give up seats for the needy on buses or trains? Do we help other people put away their luggage in the overhead luggage compartment? The driver extended his kindness first and I reciprocated by quickening my pace, and acknowledging his kindness with a big smile while saying “thank you.” I hope my acknowledgment had the same effect on him as his gracious act had on me.These are examples of kind acts extended to strangers. What about gracious acts to people we know? How do we become a graceful person to our loved ones? How we relate to other people matter a great deal in the science of happiness.
Dr. George Valliant, in his review of the findings on 268 Harvard sophomores selected in 1938-42 and followed prospectively for seven decades until 2009, came to the conclusion that the capacity for empathic relationships is a great predictor of happiness and aging well. (See George Vaillant’s article on PPND “Yes, I Stand by My Words, “Happiness Equals Love—Full Stop”). Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman included the three strengths of humanity (love, kindness and social intelligence) in their list of 24 character strengths and virtues.
Being Gracious to Our Close Ones
So how do we put “other people matter” into practice? Dr. John Harvey, Professor of Psychology at the University of Iowa, and his colleagues use the term “minding.” When we mind others we put them into our consciousness and our memory. When we mind, we are practicing a strength of humanity in thinking well of another person. In short, we start with being gracious, acting in a graceful manner when we mind.
What does it mean to be graceful in the 21st century? Perhaps attending to those times in which we “mind” another person. So readers of PPND, please take a moment and share with us the little kindnesses that other people (especially those in romantic, family, friend and work relationships) have done for you.
Harvey, J. H. , Pauwels, B. G. & Zickmund, S. (2005). Relationship connection: the role of minding in the enhancement of closeness. In Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 423-433). New York: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vaillant, G. (2012). Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press.