“Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change.” – Bob Kerrey (1943)
The kindness of strangers has the power to improve our well being and increase our feelings of happiness more than our normal friendship circle. How do I figure this? Imagine you have been hurt or let down by someone you trusted and thought you knew. You’re just looking to vent and for someone to listen to your story.
First you talk to a friend, they listen, and offer you their opinion and give advice in an attempt to try to lift you back up. You can sense their empathy and genuine care in their response which makes you feel somewhat better and your day continues as normal.
Now imagine the same scenario, but this time you’re talking to a complete stranger. You tell them your story and they listen. They then respond in a way that shows they identify or can relate to your situation, they offer you their opinion based on what they have heard and understood, and advise you accordingly. All of a sudden you feel less alone and your faith in humanity is restored and it’s like the sun has started shining through a grey sky – your day almost feels better, more fulfilled than when you spoke to your friend. The happiness you feel as a result of the correspondence with a stranger barely compares to how you felt after communicating with your friend about the same issue.
Why strangers do it better
There are several reasons why strangers have the power to make us feel happier than our usual circle of friends – this could be why Internet dating is becoming more popular and a more acceptable way of meeting someone and finding love. Here are some of the reasons why strangers can appeal to us more than our friends:
The fact is we expect our friends to care about our well-being and therefore subconsciously depend on them to listen to us, side with us, and support us unconditionally through all turbulence. It’s a part of friendship that almost all of us take for granted.
In the case of a complete stranger, we have no expectations. When a stranger is entirely removed from a situation and shows us kindness, we appreciate the time they take to actively listen to our story more than when our friends show us the same courtesy. Then if the stranger passes judgement that validates our feelings or actions, we start to feel better understood and less alone.
Although a stranger may have responded the same way as our friends, they exceed our expectations because we didn’t have any to begin with.
The “stranger danger” belief
Strangers may also have an advantage over our friends because as children we were made acutely aware of “stranger danger”. These messages shaped our beliefs that strangers are a threat and potential danger.
Even now, despite statistics showing that someone we know who is a greater threat to us than a stranger, the media often highlight stories that demonstrate the opposite. When a stranger offers us kindness, our receptors instantly flick on warning us to be wary and we begin to question their motives and what could be in it for us.
It is when the kindness of a stranger is proven to be genuine and consequence-free, despite what we were programmed to understand, we often find ourselves pleasantly surprised.
As adults, neglecting or rejecting the kindness of strangers can force us to be confined and limited, so if we challenge this “stranger danger” belief, it enables us to work together to make a positive difference in each others lives.
The selfish world we live in
Society often finds people first looking for the “what’s in it for me” before taking action in any situation. We all do it, whether it’s because we’re all time-poor in this fast-paced world or we’re simply becoming more selfish by the generation.
You may even notice that marketing campaigns are starting to lean towards commercial bribery as they become more aware that if they can’t convince the consumers that there’s something in it for them, it’s nearly impossible to motivate anyone to take action, let alone convince people to try a new product.
We are starting to value time more than ever before which is why when a stranger takes a moment to act selflessly towards us it leaves us feeling good because they have given up time to be thoughtful.
About the kindness movement
This theory that strangers can have a greater impact on us than our friends isn’t new. Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel Pay It Forward published in 2000, which was adapted into the film starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment in the same year, may have inspired the movement that encourages random acts of kindness towards strangers.
Whenever it began, adults are now being actively encouraged to be more mindful of each other and to demonstrate random acts of kindness where they can. The stigma associated with strangers being dangerous is deteriorating as more people embrace the “Pay it Forward” movement.
How you can make a positive difference to a stranger
The purpose of the following activities is to do something nice for someone without expecting anything in return – It doesn’t have to be expensive and there’s no need to go above and beyond when you choose to demonstrate a random act of kindness for a stranger.
– Buy someone’s coffee in the coffee shop
– Help a student with their tuition
– Teach someone something new
– Volunteer for a charity
– Let someone in front of you in the grocery store line
– Hand-write a letter to someone telling them how important they are to you
– Speak up for someone – sign a petition, write a letter or be a referee for a job
– Work pro bono where your skills are needed
– Compliment a stranger
– Give up your seat when taking crowded public transport
– Listen to someone without interruption
– Greet someone in the elevator
– Hold the door open for someone
– Explain the Pay it Forward concept to someone
Sarah is the founder of Happiness Weekly – a weekly blog post containing practical tips about staying happy in times of adversity, along with motivating quotes and ideas posted on Facebook and Twitter. To check out the blog visit: www.happinessweekly.org