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 wellbeing 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 the stranger barely compares to how you felt after communicating with your friend about the same issue.
This week Happinesss Weekly looks at why strangers can have a greater impact on your happiness than your friends.
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:
- Our expectations
The fact is we expect our friends to care about our wellbeing 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 other’s 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, 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
– Take part in Pay it Forward Day on 22 April. Find more information here.
For more ideas on how you can show kindness to others, follow the free Thrive Happiness Challenge application.
My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations. Michael J. Fox
The other day I saw a quote on Facebook I want to share with you:
I lost it!
This was this exact thought process that encouraged a dangerous level of “acceptance” towards a narcissist I was entangled with, who was abusing me – and it made me angry that they were actively encouraging it.
I used to tell myself: “It will get better, he’s not like this all the time, he loves me most of the time, he cheated – but he came back so he obviously loves me, those flowers are gorgeous – he is really sorry, he won’t do it again…” The excuses and rationalizing were endless. At my lowest point I went to the doctors to try to get medication to toughen my skin “so I wouldn’t bruise so easily”. When I tell people that, they look at me stunned. How can you get to that point? How can you stay? Meanwhile the excuses went on as I “accepted” this ‘man’ and his treatment of me. What I was actually doing was masking the abuse: I wasn’t admitting it to anyone – least of all myself. (By the way: that medication to toughen the skin so it won’t bruise so easily? Doesn’t exist. And since I left that relationship, my “bruising problem” has resolved itself, in fact, I haven’t had one bruise. Magic.)
Now, let’s get real: what was dangerous wasn’t the above quote (though I still don’t believe it’s a healthy way of thinking) – but the risk was that I had mistaken my thought processes for acceptance, when really I had reached a state of “cognitive dissonance” in order to remain in the relationship. While I think my experience was quite extreme, it’s not unusual in domestic violence partnerships or particularly where there is narcissistic abuse for these behaviours and excuses to evolve.
This week Happiness Weekly looks at acceptance – are you taking it too far?
What is acceptance?
According to a quick Google search, acceptance is “the process or fact of being received as adequate, valid, or suitable”.
We decide what is acceptable and unacceptable to us at a very young age. Each of us has a little voice inside, which tells us if a situation is acceptable or not – generally we can be guided by our intuition. As adults, we have the power to override this inner voice and choose selectively what we want to accept and what we don’t. Unfortunately we can choose this to our detriment – as in my case – and it’s when we choose to accept something against the guidance of our inner voice that we generally start going down a bad path.
When we go through a toxic or abusive relationship, and perhaps even choose to stay in it, we also stop trusting ourselves. Instead of dealing with it we go into denial, we “accept” it for what is, we look for small flickers of love from the abuser and respond with great gratitude in order to hold on.
Hold on to what?!
If this sounds like you and you have in this moment made the decision to get out of what you’re in, please check out All about toxic relationships and how to let go. If your intuition is telling you to get out of your relationship, I urge you to take the steps needed to follow through.
Setting personal boundaries is essential in any relationship but particularly healthy ones. If you’re in an unhealthy relationship you’ll find your boundaries are spongy or just continually fall by the wayside, but your intuition still lets you know if something is happening that you don’t want. Part of setting boundaries is knowing what is acceptable to you and what isn’t and your boundaries are generally put in place according to this. Seems straight forward.
At any time we are able to adjust our beliefs and change what is acceptable to us and what isn’t – it is up to us if we make these adjustments in a positive or negative direction. When you continue overriding this inner voice and your personal boundaries drop off because you’re choosing to accept something deep down you know you shouldn’t, it’s extremely detrimental to your trust in yourself, and believe me when I say it makes the journey to recovery a lot longer and harder than it needs to be. No matter how experienced or inexperienced you are with life or relationships – your intuition knows best – not your partner, not your friends, not your family, not your therapist: you! You know best.
I also wanted to share this – there seems to be a cycle for everything these days (a control cycle, an abuse cycle etc) there is also an acceptance cycle, which is very similar to the stages of grief. Every time we accept something, this is what we go through (and in looking at this we can also see how easy it is to fall into the trap of cognitive dissonance):
What is cognitive dissonance?
According to Victims and Survivors of Psychopaths “cognitive dissonance is a powerful self-preservation mechanism which can completely distort and override the truth, with the victim developing a tolerance for the abuse and ‘normalizing’ the abusers behaviour, despite evidence to the contrary”. Some people break it down to doing the right thing for the wrong reasons or vice versa. In my experience I continued to tell myself that if I just ignored the bad and focused on the good, everything would be alright – right? And he was abusing me, so as long as I stayed I could possibly change him back to being the person I had known at the start (common in narcissistic abuse), then I was the better person – right? NO! WRONG! NOT ALRIGHT!
How did I get confused?
Acceptance seems to be the answer to all our questions, everywhere we look. The message we’re given is if we just accept things and people exactly as they are, we will be happier and magically live a stress-free life. The fact is, extreme amounts of acceptance lowers our expectations, and in the process makes us forget what is acceptable to us and what is not – this can then lead us directly into cognitive dissonance.
Why can’t you just leave an abusive relationship?
The reason it’s hard to leave an abusive relationship once we reach this state of cognitive dissonance is the way it closely links to trauma bonding. According to Victims and Survivors of Psychopaths “traumatic bonding is strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other. (Dutton & Painter, 1981)”. Generally there is a power imbalance, the abuse is sporadic, and the victim engages in denial for emotional self-protection and one form of this is dissociation – where the victim distances themselves from the abuse as though it’s not happening to them.
“Since the victim feels powerless to change the situation, they rely on emotional strategies to try to make it less dissonant, to try to somehow make it fit. To cope with the contradicting behaviors of the abuser, and to survive the abuse, the person literally has to change how they perceive reality,” Victims and Survivors of Psychopaths said.
Many people will accept abuse by rationalising it away to themselves, staying in denial, or simply because they feel like the better person for staying. It sounds silly – but the thought process is often because the victim is not the one abusing, it makes them feel better about themselves and their situation. This leads into another example of where begins cognitive dissonance in an abusive or toxic relationship.
“Trauma bonding makes it easier for a victim to survive within the relationship, but it severely undermines the victims self-structures, undermining their ability to accurately evaluate danger, and impairs their ability to perceive of alternatives to the situation,” Victims and Survivors of Psychopaths said.
“Once a trauma bond is established it becomes extremely difficult for the victim to break free of the relationship. The way humans respond to trauma is thought to have a biological basis… Many victims feel the compulsion to tell and retell the events of the trauma in an attempt to come to terms with what happened to them and to try to integrate it, reaching out to others for contact, safety, and stability. Other victims react in an opposite manner, withdrawing into a shell of self-imposed isolation. The trauma bond can persist even after the victim leaves the relationship, with it sometimes taking months, or even years, for them to completely break the bond,” the site said.
Deciding when things are unacceptable
There comes a point when someone is hurting us that we need to WAKE UP and see the situation for what it is. Accepting a scenario that doesn’t align with us, as it plays out over and over again, is really unhealthy and there needs to be a point where we stop accepting a situation as it is and start taking action for our own self-preservation.
Often people in domestic violence situations are under a lot of control and feel their options are limited, it’s not that they don’t want to get out – it’s that they don’t know what steps to take in order to do it safely. If you feel trapped in this sort of situation, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) if you’re in Australia (it’s 24 hours), or contact White Ribbon for assistance (they’re very active and helpful on their Facebook), or refer to How to escape a controlling person in a domestic violence situation.
The turning point: how to stop accepting the wrong things
Over the years I have become guilty of being a serial-accepter as I found it easier to accept and say “yes” than to reject: “no”. The more I found myself going along with things, despite my intuition and better judgement, the more I lost sight of what I felt was acceptable and unacceptable. What we need to realise is there does come a time when it’s ok to get angry, take a stand and walk away – as long as you keep going.
It was only recently that I realised we spend so much of our lives being told to show gratitude for every little thing and to accept things for what they are, that we stop expecting the big things to happen. The consequence is our expectations drop dramatically and the wrong people appear in our lives. To find out how you can make yourself happy and avoid this trap you can refer to last week’s blog How to make yourself happy.
In the process of losing our expectations, we forget what behaviour towards us is acceptable – the little signs of kindness feel so much more important than what they actually are, and we clutch to them through adversity, making it easier to draw attachment to another person. This is where we often open the door to the wrong people.
Instead, what we should be doing during times of adversity, trauma and grief is re-learning to depend on ourselves, focusing on how we can make ourselves feel special and empowered – and how we can move ourselves forward. This lifts our expectations, and the higher our expectations are, the more you’ll find the right people are drawn in because they need to work harder to be with us. So, despite what we’ve been taught in recent times, happiness doesn’t come from acceptance and gratitude, it comes from within. Self-belief. Self-love. Self-nurturing. Seeing the pattern here? The turning point all starts and ends with self!
Acceptance, forgiveness and gratitude in their place
Many of us would agree with the Michael J Fox quote I selected to accompany today’s blog post.
However, when we choose to accept everything in an attempt to be happy, the irony is that the things we have accepted against our better judgement and intuition, won’t actually make us happy at all. In the short-term we get to go “Yay! I got this!” and maybe we have something to show for it, but longer-term it won’t impact our happiness and if anything, it will more likely make us unhappy because of the way we have acquired it. Anything acquired in a negative way will often be toxic to us. Also, despite cognitive dissonance as a real condition, long-term we can’t fool ourselves into believing something makes us happy when it doesn’t. We can’t lie to ourselves. We can’t hide from what we believe is right or wrong. This is why it’s important to always be authentic when choosing to be accepting, forgiving or put energy into showing gratitude.
Don’t get me wrong: acceptance, forgiveness and gratitude certainly assist us with living a fulfilling life, but as with everything, they have their place. We shouldn’t depend on these for our happiness or use them as a way of gaining short-term happiness. What do I mean? Acceptance, forgiveness and gratitude can often be used as tools for our short-term happiness because it’s more comfortable or easier for us to choose those rather than really soul-searching and knowing what authentically aligns with us: our values, boundaries and generally what we find acceptable.
A lesson for the abused
“When a simpleton abused him, Lord Buddha listened to him in silence, but when the man had finished, the Buddha asked him, ‘Son, if a man declined to accept a present offered to him, to whom would it belong?’ The man answered ‘To him who offered it.’ ‘My son’, Buddha said, ‘I decline to accept your abuse. Keep it for yourself.’” The Buddha (as told by Will Durant).
Challenge: Find your authentic self
This week I challenge you not be accepting, forgiving or spend energy showing gratitude unless it’s absolutely genuine. The theory is in doing this we will stop inviting lower-expectations into our lives and suffer the consequences.
So dig deep and find your authentic self. Have you been accepting people and behaviours simply because it’s easier for you? Be honest.
This week be selective about what you accept, who you forgive and when you show your gratitude to people because there are people out there who will take advantage of it.
Note how you feel as a result.
Moving forward by relying on yourself
The way forward from being overly accepting of things or surrendering yourself to cognitive dissonance is looking to yourself for validation. Instead of looking to others for signs of love and kindness, know what makes you feel special and validated. This varies for everyone, but start with dating yourself – inspiration provided by Ashley here, learning what you like and dislike and offer yourself ongoing unconditional self-love.
If you are going through something traumatic caused by another person (particularly a partner, spouse or lover), you may go in search of someone else because instead of dealing with something uncomfortable and traumatic, we try attach ourselves to someone as a way of coping. It can almost be instinctive because we’re looking for a knight in shining armor to save us and make us feel better during this horrible time. I urge you to resist this temptation because looking outward for happiness during troubled times in our relationships is simply a way of trying to comfort yourself and it is also how love addiction can start which will see you jumping from partner to partner. Also, your new relationship won’t last, and remember what I said about acquiring something negatively, it may also never make you happy.
Challenge yourself to stand on your own two feet. Wait until your emotions subside and you resolve the situation before you decide to take any steps with the person you’re feeling drawn to because sometimes you’re in such bad condition from the troubled relationship you have that what you’re accepting in your life is also less than you deserve. Stay true to yourself and always remember what is meant to be will be. Have faith that what you want exists and it will come to you in perfect time.
Meanwhile, if you feel that you are taking acceptance too far or even suffering from cognitive dissonance in an attempt to comprehend and/or remain in an abusive relationship, please seek professional help with a psychologist, counsellor or life coach (such as Melanie Tonia Evans) to help you through your healing journey.