Being Kind to Strangers Will Make Us Feel Better

April 5, 2017 Richard Justenhoven

Amy Alkon on Being Kind to Others

The world continues to shift and change – and there’s a much talked about growth in self-interest in some countries, cities and communities which rides rough shod over any desire to look out for others and care for our fellow man.

In her TEDx talk in November 2016, the US author and blogger Amy Alkon sought to bring to the fore the power of being kind to those not known to us and how this not has a positive impact on the person helped, but also on the one doing the helping.

She starts by recounting the time in the 1980’s when she and two friends set up a stall on a New York street corner to offer free advice – just for something to do. Overwhelmed with people queuing for this advice, whilst her father was annoyed at her not earning any money from this, Alkon shares her very real ‘high’ she gained from her helping these passers-by.

Alkon says it makes evolutionary sense to feel better from helping others. We are psychologically prepared to live and work within neighbourhoods in which we care, and share and work together to help each other out. And yet, many now live and work in quite faceless communities in which we don’t know the people living near us; we are living, Alkon says, in strangerhoods. So, when we see a stranger, we don’t see him or her as someone we should be helping, but someone of whom we should be wary. It’s about ‘us’ and ‘them’. But it needn’t be like this.

Carrying out a small act of kindness to a stranger is a powerful act. And the difference in magnitude about how this feels is to do with whether or not you know them. If it’s a person you are already familiar with, it’s easy to do something kind. If you’re looking out for someone you may never see again and expecting nothing in return, it can be Alkon says life-shifting for those offering the help – and those accepting the help.

But how can we build on this? Alkon refers, although not in her talk, to research by social psychologists Sara Algoe and Jonathan Haidt which finds that observing or even just hearing about others’ kind deeds motivates people to want to follow suit. It seems that powerful positive feelings rise up in us when we witness ‘moral beauty’.

Finally, Alkon challenges us all to do one kind act a day for a stranger for a week – and we will, she says, want to keep going back for more. She also suggests engaging in ‘kindsourcing’, explaining this to be a similar model to ‘crowdsourcing’ in which one reaches out to a large group of people, usually online, to get ideas or help. ‘Kindsourcing’ is Alkon’s term for a somewhat more indirect way to inspire a bunch of people to take action. It involves reaching out to others, online and off, with stories of impressively kind and generous altruistic acts that many will be inspired to pass on.

If we all strive to live happy, meaningful lives at home and at work, perhaps this is a way to start?

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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