Generosity is contagious, research proves

Steven Petrow, a writer for the Washington Post, was surprised, one day, when he was spontaneously generous. As he began to search for the root of his own unselfish act, he remembered that someone had done the same for him.

By Steven Petrow, Washington Post

Recently I’ve been on a mission to both find and create more kindness in my world, if only because the news headlines – even personal encounters – are too frequently mean and mean-spirited. I’m thinking of teenage and grown-up bullies, the use of slurs and other hateful language. I’m thinking of the driver who rushed into a parking spot I was backing into – and then flipped me the bird. Thanks, guy.

But life’s not all about sourpusses and sour grapes. Not long ago, I was waiting in a long line at my favorite bakery, which makes some amazing scones. The delicious pile in the glass case dwindled quickly as those in the long line ahead of me snapped them up, until there was just one perfect beauty remaining – and one woman ahead of me. To my everlasting joy, she chose a croissant, so when I got to the counter I pointed to the last scone and declared, “I’ll take that.” No sooner had I spoken than the fellow behind me cried out: “Hey, that’s my scone! I’ve been waiting in line for 20 minutes!” Which he had been – behind me.

I surprised both of us when I didn’t respond with, “Sorry, it’s mine!” Instead, I countered: “Would you like half?” After a moment of shocked silence, he accepted my offer and one-upped my spontaneous act of generosity. “Why don’t I buy another pastry and we can share both?” We then sat down on a nearby bench to break bread. While it turned out we had almost nothing in common – from our jobs, ages, political views or marital status – we’d shared a moment of connection and a simple kindness. I felt happy and, frankly, wanted more of that feeling.

I probably experienced a “helper’s high,” which is what Melanie Rudd, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Houston, calls the boost we get from being kind. Much of Rudd’s research into understanding what makes us happy has focused on this aspect of giving, which she calls “impure altruism.” The “act of helping others and seeing others happy … gives us this warm glow,” she says, which benefits us.

Read the full story at the Washington Post. 
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