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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 10-14-22 – A Friendly Gesture

Two weeks ago, I was in Minnesota. One morning, I got up early and went for a walk in a park just after sunrise. It was an opportunity to look for birds, examine plant life and explore local geography I had never seen before. Shortly after I got there, I saw a Pileated Woodpecker. There was almost no other people around. There were two women walking in one direction and two men walking in another. They all seemed to have tools for picking up trash. As I walked through the park, the two men and I crossed paths and we spoke. One asked me what I if I was seeing anything interesting, and I told him that everything was interesting, as I had never been to MN before and I was from PA. They told me that they were keeping the park clean as volunteers and that they were going to work on some local roads later in the day.

We had a brief conversation about the land and the drought, and they shared some ideas on things in the area I may find interesting. They asked what brought me to their home state and I told them about the conference I was at. As I was getting ready to leave, the two groups converged at a pavilion, and it became apparent to me that they were two couples who socialized and volunteered together. As I was preparing to leave, they offered me a cup of coffee. I thanked them and declined, eager to see what I may in the L'Étoile du Nord state.

As I left, I thought about that friendly gesture of coffee. It was not something I can recall happening in my home state. Perhaps we are less friendly. Perhaps in the back of my mind is that I just watched the Dahmer series and the thing you don’t do is accept a beverage from strangers. But I can say that the small gesture of friendliness to a complete stranger stayed with me the whole day. As I am writing about it two weeks later, it stayed with me a whole lot longer than that.

What happens when we are nice to each other? I ran across this article on a study on acts of kindness done in Spain at a Coca Cola bottling plant. Participants in the study were asked to track their moods and any act of kindness they did during the day. A group of confederates were included to perform extra acts of kindness in the experimental group but not the control group. After one month, the experimental group experienced a tenfold increase in prosocial behaviors than the controls. The receivers observed more prosocial behaviors in the office and by the end of the study, they also reported feeling control of their days at work. This shows documented evidence that we have a tendency to “pay it forward” when people are nice to us. Think about the ramifications!

Over the last week or so, I also thought of all the increasingly dissatisfying experiences delivered in our modern world. Twice this last week I experienced web sites in which it would not let me move forward as it did not like the way I entered information, like a phone number or an email address, indicating that my properly entered information was invalid. I also experienced the ubiquitous automated phone systems that runs you around in circles and never get you what you need. They remind me of the classic Terry Gilliam movie Brazil, about a dystopian world over reliant on poorly operating machines. Truth mimics fiction as a lot of that 1985 movie rings true about our world now.

Far too often, our days lack humanity because we have pulled the humanity out of our systems under the guise of efficiency. Regular readers will find I come back to many of the same themes, and this post is no outlier. We lack connection with each other, and it impacts our sense of wellbeing. I also ran across this article that 90% of US adults say the United States is experiencing a mental health crisis. On the bright side, I find it heartening that we can agree on anything that uniformly. In my way of thinking, when we find something that there is such widespread agreement on, there is opportunity to find common ground if we find ways to work on that thing in ways we also tend to agree on.

I think a key to a greater sense of wellbeing is doing things that have meaning in our lives. Back to those two couples in MN. They were cleaning up litter in a park, and then they extended a small act of kindness to me. I would suggest that these things are related. They found ways to exercise, socialize and do something meaningful in their lives by keeping their local park clean, together and they saw me as a fellow traveler worthy of extending hospitality.

I am not always kind! I don’t think anyone is 100% of the time. It is usually within me to take an extra moment to be friendly or empathetic with a stranger even when I am having a rough day, but not always. To not share misery but to be empathic. I can do a small act of kindness or contribute in some small way to making another person’s day better. If that research study cited above is accurate beyond the sample examined, this energy can result in a tenfold increase in well-being for those who cross my path. This morning, I am grateful to those two couples and their offer of a warm cup of coffee on a brisk autumn morning. What are you grateful for today?

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