Back in 2018, the “Wall Street Journal” published an opinion piece called “A Senseless Act of Courtesy” (note, you’ll need an account to read the whole article). The subtitle works as a decent summary of the so-called “senseless act:”
“In an empty parking lot on a Sunday morning, an elderly couple decide not to hog two spaces.”
In short, after parking their car, the couple discovered they had parked on one the lines defining the parking space. They got back in their car, started it up, and centered it. Then they got back out and went on with their errand.
If you’ve read even a couple of my articles, you’ll know why I absolutely love this story AND the fact that it got published. The general purpose of my writing is to promote the idea that all around us people are engaging in thoughtful actions like this one.
I think this is vital work I’m doing.
Turns out humans are drawn to the bad news and we need lots of good news to balance this out.
Indeed, research has shown that we’re wired to focus on the negative. “Psychology Today” explained our tendency to go dark in an article called “Our Brain’s Negative Bias:”
“Why do insults once hurled at us stick inside our skull, sometimes for decades? Why do some people have to work extra hard to ward off depression? The answer is, for the same reason political smear campaigns outpull positive ones. Nastiness just makes a bigger impact on our brains.”
This “impact on our brains” evolved over time. Our ancestors survived — and were able to reproduce — due to their ability to predict what could harm them and avoid it. Brains better able to identify danger reproduced with other brains better able to identify danger, leading to offspring with brains even more adept at being able to identify danger.
Fast forward to you and me in the present and it’s understandable why our brains are drawn to the negative.
But today’s negative isn’t likely to put us in harm’s way like it did our ancestors. Instead, it plays out with us focusing more on criticism than on praise, and being more drawn to soap opera-like drama than stories of people doing decent things, like an elderly couple taking the time to center their car in a parking space.
The bad stuff in the world snares us. The good stuff, not so much.
The “Psychology Today” article goes on to report that our negative bias is so strong we need to seek out positive interactions just to balance things out. In close relationships, we need five positives for every negative, and that’s just to make things even!
Which leads me back to the story in the “Wall Street Journal” and why I was thrilled to read it. Paying attention to stories like this adds to the positive side of my ledger. Yours, too, actually, provided you see the action as positive.
On that note, I was curious how people who took the time to publicly comment on the story would represent their reactions. Among the first comments I read was someone who referred to what the couple did as “silly.” In response to that comment, someone else offered an insult.
So right away, people went negative.
That’s not to say there weren’t a lot of positive comments; in fact, many were positive and some quite effusively so. My favorite was from a man who identified himself as David Paler. He defined what the couple did as practicing “ethical courtesy,” which he described this way:
“It’s not just being courteous to others who are PRESENT, such as holding open a door for someone whose arms are full of packages, or giving up your seat to someone who needs it, but rather it’s a mix of doing the right thing with respect and politeness towards others who are ABSENT.”
The work I do to promote and recognize ordinary acts of kindness is designed to bear witness to these acts of “ethical courtesy,” and to encourage people to perform them. The more practice we get at identifying them, the more of them we see. The more kind acts we complete, the more we recognize opportunities to be kind. Doing so counterbalances our inherent negative bias and tips the scales toward the positive.
And a world of people so engaged is how we achieve peace on earth.