Here’s a headline we all see from time to time: “Waitress gets $1,000 tip from friendly stranger.” Those stories have never felt like real news to me. They just always seemed so grand that they could never be feasible in real life, in our big, bad world.
Often, this lack of belief transfers to even the most basic acts of kindness, the ones we should practice every day. But I’ve come to find that practicing kindness is not useless, nor even infeasible. As Aesop said, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted."
Maybe it’s sad that I needed “evidence” to believe this, but it turns out compassion is actually physically good for you. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson recalls meeting the Dalai Lama and being asked, “You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?” Dr. Davidson’s later commentary? “I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard."
We’ve attached such fluffy connotations to kindness that we overlook how beneficial it can really be. Davidson reports from his studies that “there are systematic changes in the brain that are associated with acts of generosity.” So maybe doing something nice is not just some one-way act—it could actually benefit your psychological health, too. A brain imaging study at the National Institutes of Health also reveals that the same pleasure centers in the brain that light up when we enjoy food and sex, for example, light up when we experience acts of giving, too.
Thinking about this in the context of Columbia, I know that a lot of people, including myself, are far too self-absorbed: It’s my grades, my priorities, my schedule. When someone drops a fork in the dining hall, I usually don’t even bother to look down. I figure they’ll just pick it up themselves. It was only recently that I stopped to ask myself why I never took the time—approximately three seconds, in fact—to simply pick up the other person’s fork and get on with my day.
Columbians can all relate to this, even if they don’t want to admit it. If there’s a curve on the test, we don’t like to help our classmates. If someone’s walking toward the elevator, we often don’t even stop to hold it (I’m looking at us, EC). And when we are tired, we rarely stop to listen or empathize with friends who are tired, too, and could be dealing with serious stress or problems.
This obsession with ourselves is even more exacerbated because we don’t have a family structure in college. Here, we are all on our own and have only our needs to think about. Then add in New York City, and you realize we are all in our own little worlds, constantly fighting and competing to be “successful” in a city that prides itself on fast-paced, hard-edged individualism.
But after talking to friends at other high-ranking schools—Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago, I realized that intellectual environments don’t necessarily have to be competitive and ruthless. While I don’t mean to make generalizations, my friends who attend other schools seem to actually enjoy helping others, be it with problem sets or non-school-related work.
When my friend from Michigan visited Columbia last year, she shocked me by holding the elevator for someone walking towards us in Wien. Then, as we waited, she even talked to this Columbian she didn’t know. I was dumbfounded when she finally wished them a nice day upon leaving the elevator.
And what do you know? The next day we saw the same person, who had never spoken to me in the elevator before. This time, he actually wanted to talk to me. And just like that, because my friend had been so spontaneously receptive to him, we became friendly with each other, and just a few weeks later, he ended up offering me advice in a very stressful situation.
Of course, you shouldn’t only be compassionate in the hope of getting a possible favor from someone, someday. But for our professionally-oriented student body, we can think of being nice like networking with other people, in a way that can lead to unexpected favors and benefits. Helping others helps yourself.
Recently, I’ve realized there are many instances at Columbia in which we can be nicer. For instance, we often ignore the tourists here at Columbia, sometimes even laughing at them if they squat or lean or jump to take pictures in front of Alma Mater. But imagine visiting a university abroad, like Oxford or Cambridge and having all the students laugh at you for taking pictures. It’s cruel and totally unnecessary. On the other hand, I remember the students who were so kind to me on my college tours, those who went out of their way to help me. Those small actions affected my decision to apply to certain schools, both in small and big ways. So kindness can, even unnoticeably, impact the future in the very long run.
Trying a few “nice” things over the past few weeks has actually made me feel better, lighting up my brain’s “pleasure center,” I suspect. These actions take barely any effort, just motivation—I’m trying to adjust to a new, “nicer” mindset. Obviously, being nice just to get a pleasurable feeling somewhat undermines the integrity of it, and we should always strive to be kind and compassionate for its own sake. Kindness is a social tool, not only good for us but necessary for survival. But even if you are kind just for the benefits, you will still get them regardless of your intention. So really, what downside is there to being a nice person if it’s this simple?
Anna Raskind is a senior at Columbia University studying English. Annalytical runs alternate Fridays.
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