It was a stolen wallet that reminded me of human kindness.
In a Manhattan restaurant a few weeks ago, I reached for my purse and immediately felt that something was wrong. It was too light — hadn’t I made sure it was zipped? A sickness washed over me as I peered inside and noticed that my wallet was gone. Panic-stricken, a million questions began racing through my mind.
Then as my thoughts turned to the Boston Marathon bombings, my small misfortune seemed inconsequential compared to the terrorism behind the event, which seemingly overshadowed the positive action it has since inspired.
Ryan Higgitt, a PhD candidate in the department of sociology, said that while there are aspects of “humanness” that distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom, it can be difficult to scientifically rationalize acts of charity and kindness due to a human “selfish gene.”
“There is a view with evolutionary biology that tells us that human nature is selfish,” Higgitt said in an e-mail to the Journal. “Individuals want to get as much as they can out of life and give as little as they can get away with.”
The driving force behind this selfishness stems from an inherent desire to continue one’s own genetic line, he said.
However, as anthropologists recognize certain behaviours as universal taboos, this suggests that there are also universal understandings of good.
“Those who maintain that there are phenomena in this world that cannot be reduced to a scientific explanation do have a compelling case,” he said. “Treat others as you’d like to be treated.”
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, the acts of charitable kindness have reached beyond the “selfish gene” in an attempt to help heal a community.
According to Dean Tripp, a professor in the department of psychology, there can be no growth or positive experience without negative experiences.
“It’s how you interpret, deal or cope with these significantly negative experiences that gives you the ability to move on, or to feel quite stuck,” he said.
A professor of positive psychology, Tripp said that if mental health were a pendulum, an individual’s neutral baseline is the “zero” centre point.
“Positive psychology believes that you can help the individual be better and maximize themselves beyond that zero point,” he said.
Acknowledging gratitude towards a significant person in your life is one way to achieve a more positive mindset.
“That gratitude experience not only broadens your positive emotions in reflecting on how you’ve accomplished something in your life, being thankful for the people that have helped you, but it now develops a keen sense of awareness for how you can help other people,” he said.
The stories that have emerged from the bombings on April 15, while a source for much grief, have provoked kind action towards helping those affected.
Tripp said that eight-year-old Boston native Martin Richard, who was killed in the explosion, has inspired projects for the young children in his son’s class.
“They’re doing stuff that Boston will never know and recognize, but they’re doing stuff in their classroom to be kind to each other as they try to understand … how could this happen?” he said. “Terrible events often bring out the best in people.”
Positive action isn’t just limited to the classroom. In an effort to connect those stranded by the bombings, Google Drive established a database of Boston residents offering aid and shelter to those who needed it.
“When you see public displays of that type of support … that type of compassion leads to a sense of community, that sense of community leads to a sense of security, well-being and closeness,” he said.
Tripp said he’s seen student groups in the process of creating positivity enhancing workshops, drawing from Tripp’s positive psychology class in an effort to reduce stress on campus and create a more positive community at Queen’s.
“I’m anticipating in the next academic year that you’ll see some of this stuff start to happen more often … I hope,” Tripp said. “I think it would be great if someone just wanted to walk around campus with flowers someday, giving them out saying, ‘Hey, you’re worth it, take this flower.’”
Queen’s students have already begun taking measures towards creating a more positive atmosphere.
Rachel Albi, ConEd ‘14, along with her roommates Erica Gagne, Artsci ‘14, Jessica Jonker, ConEd ‘14 and Amanda Smurthwaite, ConEd ’14, founded the “Queen’s U Compliments” Facebook page this past September.
Inspired by her sister, who had attempted a similar idea during high school, Albi decided to bring the initiative to a university level.
“I pitched it to my roommates and they all thought it was a really great idea … to bring up the school’s morale and make the atmosphere a little bit happier,” Albi said.
During the dull transition back into school after a summer working at Walt Disney World, Albi, along with her roommates decided to create the Facebook page where compliments for fellow students could be posted anonymously.
“We’ve seen so much cyber-bullying … so we wanted to try to turn something anonymous over Facebook into something positive that would make people feel good and just bring happiness,” she said.
Similar initiatives have spread to Canadian schools like McMaster University and the University of Guelph. It continues to spread internationally to schools such as Harvard, Columbia, Yale and, even further, to the Universities of Edinburgh, Singapore and Zimbabwe.
“It’s really exciting, we never thought that it would spread past our school,” Albi said. “It just shows the power of students.”
The power of positivity and kindness goes a long way, whether in the face of a horrific crisis, anonymously brightening someone’s day, or to help a panicked, wallet-less girl.
As I was leaving the restaurant on what would turn out to be an unsuccessful search for my wallet, a woman sitting at the next table over reminded me, “Don’t worry, dear, there are still kind people in this world.”
Despite everything, she had brightened my mood because no matter what would end up happening, I knew that much was true.
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