We have had a really weird winter in Atlanta. Truth be told, we haven’t HAD a winter in Atlanta. It’s in the 70s today, I am home with a bit of a cold, and I decided to read on the deck for a while. Walking out I opened the sliding screen door – with my finger. Why was I able to do that? Why did this door, a sticking source of aggravation for at least fifteen years, open so easily? YouTube, and the kindness of strangers. My husband, formerly not the handiest guy on the block, has been transformed by YouTube videos. And he decided one weekend recently that he would fix the screen door. And he did it, thanks to at least twenty YouTube videos on – you guessed it – screen door repair.
Now I’ll admit that some of the screen-fixing experts now have elaborate home-repair channels and are making money, but most of them are simply offering their advice for free. Why do they do it?
Why are MOST of us helpful when we don’t have to be? I thought of this a lot three years ago, the year we DID have a real winter. That was the year of our “Snowmaggedon” in January of 2014. Forecasters missed the timing of a snowfall, and no one was prepared for the midday snow. Tens of thousands of commuters and school buses took to the always over-crowded Atlanta highways at exactly the same time, and the combination shut the city down and stranded a lot of people overnight. It was serious and dangerous – four big groups of children had impromptu sleepovers on the Interstate in yellow school buses.
As I watched coverage of the storm the next day, I was struck by a theme. People walked miles to take food and water to people stranded in their cars. Big stores like Home Depot and Kroger became shelters for thousands. People offered their homes to strangers who were hungry, cold, or sick
I remember an epiphany I had right after that. I was waiting for an event to start and eavesdropping on a conversation in front of me. “Why is there never any good news on TV? Why do they cover so much horrible stuff ? Why do they never cover the good things that happen?” I remember thinking then – it’s just too ordinary – we see little bits of good news a hundred times a day. When do we see good news? When a stranger holds a door open, when a person lets a mother with two tired kids go first through the grocery line, or when a coworker helps another coworker finish up a project.
I have decided that we are amazingly helpful and frequently altruistic creatures, but we often don’t seem to notice. The most profound evidence of our empathy for others and our willingness to help comes from the Max Planck Institute. I never tire of watching their videos of toddlers helping adults in need.
Chapter 3 in the book Team Genius is entitled “The New Science of Teams,” and the authors describe a number of studies that point to our natural propensity to cooperate and help. In a problem-solving experiment groups of children naturally worked in teams, sharing advice and rewards. Groups of young chimps did not. Our big, complex brains may be there to handle the intricacies of social interaction. According to the authors, “environmental forces…forced us to work together in complicated ways. Our large brain size is the outcome of that teamwork.” (Karlgaard and Malone, Team Genius, Page 37.)
We have all benefited from the unpaid, voluntary collaboration the internet has allowed – Wikipedia, Firefox, Linux – and YouTube repair videos. Helpful, honest behavior is expected and ordinary. (How many times have YOU checked the “I have read the terms and conditions” box without actually reading the 30 page document? That’s called trust in your fellow man.)
So why don’t we realize that we watch bad news because it’s unusual and extraordinary? Why do we remember the time our colleague shot down our idea in a meeting but not the times she supported our plans? That’s because, as psychologist Rick Hanson puts it, “The mind is like Velcro for negative experience, and Teflon for positive ones.” We will think about the meeting where our idea was shot down for hours, days even, but we will have to WORK at it to remember positive ones. Hanson says we will be happier if we try to do that.
Pay attention to the many little good things that happen. Keep a gratitude journal. Check that voice in your head that keeps grumbling about the car that cut you off this morning. We human beings are pretty nice folks, and we need to remember that – about ourselves and others.
So that gets me to the Number One New Year’s Resolution for 2017, which fits right in with our altruistic, fundamentally decent natures. What is it? To be a better person. I heard about the number one resolution in a January sermon, and I’ve decided it’s my resolution too. And part of that is starting a Gratitude Journal. It’s a great antidote for cable news.