A random act of kindness

This blog is primarily about health. Pretty much everything I write in it is designed to help individuals make more informed choices about how to improve the quality and quantity of their lives (should they so wish). However, I recognise that not all of live is about health. And so today’s post is a bit of a departure from the norm. It’s Christmas day today, and this day is traditionally one associated with a spirit of good will and kindness. This is all good, of course, and it occurs to me that it’s not a bad thing for kindness to be extended throughout the year.

So, today, I want to write about an event that I recently witnessed that might in some way inspire some of us to showing fellow humans (or animals) some unconditional generosity or kindness. The event in question occurred a week ago in London’s underground ‘tube’ train system. I was at Camden Town station, changing platforms. I was walking up some steps separated in the middle by a railing. I, and plenty of others, were walking up on the right hand side. It was busy and slow-going. The left hand side of the stairs (for people coming down) was pretty much empty.

Up in front of me I noticed a young man vaulting the railing in the middle of the stairway. Once over the railing, he began running up the stairs. At first, I thought he was in a rush and jumped the railing so that he could move more quickly up the less busy side of the stairway. In reality, though, he made a bee-line for a woman who was near the top of the stairway and was attempting to negotiate a buggy (and toddler) down the stairs. He lifted the front of the buggy, allowing the woman to make her way down the stairwell much more easily.

On one level, you could argue this was a relatively small gesture. I see it differently, though. While this man may have inconvenienced himself by a minute or so, it seems likely that the woman he helped was hugely grateful for his assistance. Her day was, I suspect, enriched by the experience. Maybe so was his. Mine certainly was. And perhaps the same is true for many others who witnessed this act of thoughtfulness and kindness.

So, this event got me thinking that perhaps even appear to be ‘small’ gestures of kindness may have a bigger impact than one might expect. I also wondered whether committing to exhibiting more random acts of kindness might be a worthwhile New Year’s resolution. Because the reality is that such resolutions are usually about bettering our lives. For instance, three years ago I wrote about how we might create more time in our lives to accommodate whatever healthy habits we have an ambition of cementing into everyday life. But how much better all-round might it be to put the focus on bettering others’ lives, rather than just our own?

So, I know what my New Year resolution is going to be this year: to find an excuse to be kind each and every day, however ‘bad’ my own personal day may be going. At this stage I have no idea what forms these acts of kindness might take. I am, however, genuinely excited by the possibilities. A lot more excited, I think, than I have been when contemplating previous resolutions such as resuming running, stopping smoking or practising a daily yoga routine.

29 Responses to A random act of kindness

  1. Joseph 25 December 2009 at 9:11 pm #

    Dear Doctor John,
    such a nice thought from you! Parents need to influence their children to be prepared to be helpful to others not driven by guilt but by compassion.
    It helps when example set, not just the instruction.
    Not once I read or seen on T.V. some youngsters deciding to brake their piggy bank and give their savings to a cause they became awae. Like an appeal fo a sick child needing treatment or a wheel chair etc. It touched me big time.

    John, I must speak to you severely if you do not look after your own health! Keeping fit, eating wholesome food, AND STOP SMOKING!! So many others need you, value you, care about your health too will be let down otherwise. Your spiritual aspect is spot on.

    Smoking for 16 years I stopped when realised the harm and jeopardising my life goal that motivated me. There newer been so easy to quit smoking then nowadays. It is self deception that some of us can not stop smoking if they really wanted to.

    One Christmas party I decided to stop. I said to myself I have willpower, this cigarette I break with my fingers can’t break my will. Stopped for a year.
    Then again same party I accepted a cigarette deluding myself it will not make any difference. It did. And when I wanted to stop I couldn’t. I realised I did not really wanted to stop but prove I have controil will. Then I remembered Cue’s law: “when the imagination and the will are in conflict the imagination always wins.” I decided to stop motivated both by health reasons and my life goal threatened. I enlisted my imadination. I am ‘clean’ the last 40 years.

    If you are interested I tell you how I did it.

    Be well!

    joseph.

  2. Lesley 25 December 2009 at 9:12 pm #

    Hi John,
    please prepare your self for rejection. A very short elderly lady was struggling to reach something from a supermarket shelf, can I get you that I offered,…….no you f…in can’t, came the greatfull reply, hehe.
    I must say most people are usually glad of a helping hand though.
    Lesley

  3. Robin 25 December 2009 at 9:36 pm #

    Luke 6:31

  4. Terry 25 December 2009 at 9:56 pm #

    Happy Christmas, Dr John!

    I like this idea of public solidarity and will attempt to follow it too. Whenever I have helped people with heavy luggage on London’s transport network, they have always been genuinely grateful.

    I’d also like to thank you for your superb public service via this excellent newsletter. Keep up the great work!

  5. Steve Cooksey 25 December 2009 at 10:08 pm #

    Great post and message…. as you suggest…all year long. :)

    I am a big fan of your blog, you have helped me on my fitness journey.

    Thanks and season’s greetings.

    Steve

  6. Stephen Hoyt 25 December 2009 at 10:18 pm #

    Excellent way to contemplate and start the New Year! Thanks for sharing the possible joys of helping others in any small way!

    Stephen
    Gatineau, Quebec Canada

  7. Dr John Briffa 25 December 2009 at 10:22 pm #

    Lesley

    That’s one of the things about kindness I suppose: you can only control what you do and your intent – not what the reaction you get may be. I’d be inclined to suggest, though, that we shouldn’t let fear of a ‘bad’ reaction hold us back from showing kindness (including to strangers).

  8. peter 25 December 2009 at 11:25 pm #

    For the cruel people to succeed in this world, they need only kind people to look the other way.
    Kind people need to be more vocal and political or else they will become extinct.

  9. Gabriella 26 December 2009 at 12:12 am #

    Merry Xmas from Santa Barbara, California, Dr. John, and thank you for your interesting and informative blog.
    I believe that the earth would be a much better place if everyone were kind and helpful to his/her fellow beings (and animals, too!). A lot more peace all around, that is for sure, and a great deal of serenity and peace of mind for all of us.
    We are here for such a short time, let’s make it count even if in a small way!
    Cheers to you all, Gabriella

  10. Marianne Rist 26 December 2009 at 12:17 am #

    Happy Christmas Dr Briffa, and everyone. On reading this post I remembered being on the receiving end of kindness to a stranger. Last April I accompanied my husband on a trip to Japan. He was playing some concerts with two Japanese friends. On one occasion I was to find my way from a station to the concert hall, with instructions given by our friends. As I walked away from the station I felt a bit confused, so I repeatedly asked passers-by – in English – if I was heading in the right direction. They nodded and smiled, so I continued walking… I should have been there by now! Eventually I asked someone who understood, and said I had been going in the wrong direction. If I walked back now, I would be late for the concert. She hailed a taxi that was passing, sat me in it, told the driver where to take me, and as he drove off, she gave him a 1000 yen note for my fare! I had no chance to refuse the kindness. This was an extraordinary moment. I felt as though I had met an angel…
    My thought though at this time is that it may be sometimes harder to be kind to people we know, if we feel they have in some way let us down. But in any case I agree that our acts of kindness, or meanness, do produce ripples – so the choice we make is important.

  11. Dr. Katherine Dale-Baloch 26 December 2009 at 1:02 am #

    Hi Dr. Briffa,
    Happy Christmas from Canada!
    Such a lovely message. So often as doctors we focus solely on the physical body. But, what becomes ever more relevant to me is treating the spiritual side of life; recognizing our connection to all the other brings on this great earth is an essential step to personal healing. It is this kindness to others that improves our world and our energy as a wholely connected being.
    One intentional act of kindness every day will be my resolution for the New Year!

  12. Jayney Goddard 26 December 2009 at 1:53 am #

    Dear John,
    Your email messages are an ongoing act of kindness that I look forward to each week. I know that it takes a great amount of effort to produce these (I too do an e-newsletter). Your dedication and care are truly valued and – I believe – really make a difference. Wishing you a wonderful Christmas and a very happy and healthy New Year.
    With heartfelt gratitude,
    Jayney

  13. festus 26 December 2009 at 1:57 am #

    This piece is a valuable key to access the various gates of the new year. Many difficult gates will surely be encountered this new year either by us or someone else and this key can be useful. Have a great year 2010.

  14. Nancy 26 December 2009 at 2:33 am #

    I live in a quite small (pop. 600) community in western Canada where I certainly have benefitted from such acts. I also try to offer help where I can. Also, it’s often a friendly smile, a wave at a passing vehicle, that sort of thing is almost a way of life here. (And no, it’s NOT Utopia.)

    But while not a utopia, the community started out over a century ago as a utopian settlement. Some of this has lingered, in spite of the many changes and difficulties encountered.

    These sorts of acts are basic to community building and lives on in such very small communities. It’s often the main reason that many choose to move to places like this.

    But for such little kindnesses to take place in huge cities, either here or in Europe seems to be different. The no eye contact rules, don’t speak in elevators or at bus stops, all conspire to isolate us until we no longer notice needs other than our own.

  15. Tina 26 December 2009 at 11:01 am #

    Lovely thought and good to spread this message.
    Let’s also give credit to Danny Wallace who wrote a book about this very idea (Join Me) in 2004!

  16. Marianne Rist 26 December 2009 at 2:39 pm #

    Reflecting really on my own query – Maybe by practicing to see the friend in a stranger, it becomes easier to see the friendliness-deserving stranger in those who are close to us, and in ourselves. Maybe it’s about keeping in touch with the part of ourselves that is able to let go of fear and give friendliness – encouraging it to grow day by day.
    What must have happened in the past to the lady who rejected Lesley’s helping hand… I have had beggars throw a coin at me in anger, as they judged my offering mean. Oh well, never mind.

  17. Marianne Rist 26 December 2009 at 2:47 pm #

    Joseph,

    I’m interested about “when the imagination and the will are in conflict the imagination always wins.” How did you enlist your imagination?
    Thanks.

  18. Katrina 26 December 2009 at 9:24 pm #

    Happy Christmas to you John,
    Thank you for all your blogs, both medical facts and insights into the behind the scnes of the drug and medcal world. Lovely Christtmas message above, I belive in acts of kindness . With strangers it isn’t always appreicated but without them the world would be a worse place to live. An act of kindness is after all the best Christmas present you can give someone, and it costs nothing.

  19. Debbie 27 December 2009 at 2:46 am #

    What an appropriate meassage for Christmas. I have just spent a couple of days volunteering for Crisis at Christmas in the Rough Sleepers Centre in London. It was the most positive and cheerful place you could imagine and really changes the way you look at other people. I got so much from my ‘good deed’ that it almost feels unfair! But there’s always more that can be done. Can I urge everyone to spend a little bit of their time doing some volunteering?

  20. Derek 27 December 2009 at 1:11 pm #

    Hi Doctor John,

    I see your post very much about health.

    If such kindness was a way of life for all of us, what would happen to our stress and “hurry-worry” way of life?

    Surely if our minds experience such harmony, then this would have a positive effect on our physical systems. In Zen we refer to “body-mind” and not so much “body and mind”.

    Through acts of kindness and forgiveness, gradually trust would build in the world and we would actually be living the teachings of all great masters and gurus the world throughout history and not just seeing them as so many words..

    Doing unto others as you would have them do unto us is our living karma, but many live as if it isn’t. :-)

  21. LSewell 27 December 2009 at 11:22 pm #

    Hi Dr Briffa, I heard a story about a woman driver who had inadvertently ‘cut up’ two young drivers in London. When she pulled up at the next set of traffic lights they began giving her quite a lot of verbals! She leant across with a packet of sweets she had in the car, smiled and offered them one. The result was quiet, then smiles then thanks. That story has stayed with me for a long time and underlines your idea about kindness being more effective than we give it credit for. So.. thanks for your great blog – it has meant a lot to me to read over the last year and I have gathered some great advice from your research and advice, best wishes for 2010, Lorna

  22. Marianne Rist 28 December 2009 at 7:40 pm #

    Hi Dr Briffa,
    What some of us are saying is that sharing your expertise and thoughts in your Newswletter and encouraging more sharing on your blog – although we can’t call it ‘random’ – counts as kindness, and is appreciated!
    Happy New Year
    Marianne

  23. Elizabeth, Scotland 28 December 2009 at 8:08 pm #

    Hi Dr John
    bit late for merry xmas, hope you had a good one. I to feel that if more people concetrated on the good rather than the bad/evil in the world, it would be a better place. A little kindess din’t hurt any one. so for 2010 lets put our pryers out there for peace in this univers, and show kindnes to all living things that inclueds the earth. happy and healthy 2010.

    with a big thank you for keeping in touch
    Liz xx

  24. Chris 28 December 2009 at 8:16 pm #

    Urban selfishness is the unrecognised root of many of the dissatisfactions of modern living, so this overt and random act of kindness is striking and moving in such a landscape. The problems are largely precipitant from the sheer numbers of people that populate the urban sprawl and the fact many perceive selfish strategies will help them ‘win’ while in competition with fellow humans. What is overlooked is that it is the collaborative traits inherent in past human behaviours that have delivered the infrastructures and material comforts we enjoy today. The move to agrarianism would improve caloric yield over collective effort and pave the way for other economic functions to grow. Likewise, harnessing motive power, industrial revolution, increasing specialisation of occupation and division of labour yield efficiencies and improvements in the return over effort. Complexification and advancement of emergent economic function is dependent upon increasing efficiencies in the lower order functions of the economy; the Industrial Revolution began with textiles because textiles and apparel are close to authentic biological economic need for a naked ape. Efficiencies in food production displaced people from working the land such they had no choice but to find work in the mills. Economic evolution and displacement of people continues. Displaced peoples are dependent upon emergent economic function such that they may participate in innovative enterprise and thus be remunerated and may then re-engage in the wider economy.
    Sadly, selfishness, iniquity and abuse of privileges of power seem to be consequences of economic development. I have some sense that the major religions as emerged separately in various regions of the world emerged in a time of upheaval following the benefits of moving to collective agrarianism and trade and emerged as antagonists to selfish behaviours, because selfishness and iniquity threatened the merits of collaborative division of labour. It oils the works if a society all sing from the same hymn sheet. If anybody could suggest a text which dispassionately compares the major religions and their origins in which I could explore the idea in more detail I would be grateful.

    2009 strikes me as a year like no other that shows a gaping need for enlightenment. The major domestic news stories of the year being near collapse of global banking, the incomprehensible scale of the bailouts, and the scandal of MPs expenses, carry huge counter-democratic undertones. The rapid demise of small and even medium sized businesses and the ongoing continuation of corporatisation, acquisitions, mergers, and globalisation worries me. People gathering together to found an enterprise once satisfied the trait of collaboration and mutuality. In some ways I think human behavioral collaborative practice mimics how collaboration achieves benefits in biology. It’s as if forces of collaboration and competition in biology have evolved to coexist in a beneficial balance. But in our post-industrialised society we seem to have passed some axis of balance and benefit, traits of uber-competitiveness and attitudes of efficiency at all cost really do not meet the needs nor best interests of everyone. There is a shift in balance of power from the individual to the corporate and the result is often subversive, counter-democratic and exploitative certainly.

    Only this morning I was passing some idle time under the duvet reading a book that was passed to me in an almost random act of kindness by a relative stranger whom I met in a pub. In ‘How to be Free’, Tom Hodgkinson explores the absurdities of modern life and suggests ways to cast off the shackles. His first chapter is devoted to anxiety. He takes a wider sociological at origin of anxiety in modern life and I found myself identifying with so much he has to say. Largely he attributes anxiety to a loss of meaningful autonomy that many ordinary people suffer in their daily lives, perhaps applicable as individuals or as communities. People have become resigned that ‘nanny’ should help them rather than having a capacity make an individual contribution, or initiating collective neighbourly effort, to the good of all. In an urban setting it is all to easy to close the door and retreat within ones own comfort zone. It is a failing. In denying ourselves the opportunity to see the friend in a stranger we deny ourselves the opportunity fro colloquial community contact that would attenuate our anxieties. there is a real loss of social cohesion. Habitat is important to any species, including humans. Sick building syndrome is acknowledged as having genuine basis. Why should not urban living anxiety be recognised for having influence over health prospects? Surely, were in no doubt that stress influences health outcomes?

    Your absolutely right John, this young man enriched his own life. His actions would be an antidote to the absurdities and conformist constraints that contribute to urban anxiety and thus set in motion a cascade of biochemical signals to attenuate his stress levels and promote a feeling of welbeing. The buggy lady and casual observers benefited too. I have a sense that the health of individuals are inexorably linked to the ‘standards’ or ‘health’ of society. Corporations, politicians, and certain institutions do not make good role models whereas this mans generosity was and enriched the lives of several.

    In biology, energy and nutrients circulate around in hypercycles. In monetary economies money is the instrument of trade that ought to equitably circulate energy, nutrients, access to water, sanitation, a few comforts between all. It is only the selfishness of a minority that stands in the way.
    Could not kindness be encouraged to extend in hypercycles through the echelons of society originating with random acts of kindness between strangers in an urban setting? A tube elevator seems as good a place to start.

    The suggestion that our lives would be enriched if we elect to offer random acts of kindness is an excellent prescription, certainly one where the positive side-effects upon our health drastically outweigh any potential for negative ones – an improvement upon many pills. I cannot imagine NICE giving direction upon this tho’ I have no doubt that generosity is good for health. While I do not especially subscribe to the notion of a virgin birth or the arrival of a messiah I do observe that according to the fable the three wise men bore gifts for the child of a homeless couple.

    Steph also lent me another tome in which I found this quote;
    When the stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle together because you love one another?” What will you answer? (That) “we all dwell together to make money from each other,” or, “This is a community”?

  25. Chris 28 December 2009 at 8:28 pm #

    John, we need reassurance. You did successfully quit smoking?

    Happy New Year.

  26. Dr John Briffa 28 December 2009 at 9:15 pm #

    Chris

    I most certainly did successfully stop smoking – all documented here:
    http://www.drbriffa.com/blog/2007/03/21/god-bless-allen-carr-and-my-big-brother-joe/

    Marianne

    I really do appreciate the constructive comments you and others make on the site – and apologise for the fact that I perhaps don’t say that often enough.

  27. Mary-Anne 30 December 2009 at 12:36 pm #

    Thanks Dr John. This is a lovely story. Good to take a break from ‘health’ and see the total picture, which of course speaks of abundant health – in body and in spirit. I feel as though I had received the help just by reading this story.
    Hope you will be blessed with kindness opportunities throughout the coming year.
    Mary-Anne

  28. Jaki Flowers 1 January 2010 at 1:50 am #

    Hi

    I have been performing slightly less than random acts of kindness for some years now.

    What I do is – if I see a woman who looks good in some way, I tell her. From a good looker with a great smile and genuine feelings this goes well 95% of the time. You get the odd one who thinks I’m trying to get off with her lol. Most appreciate someone noticing just how good they look. Most NEVER get that from their males. Either that or they don’t believe it :)

    The trick is, she has to look good. In some way. And that’s what you notice when you get this way over. If you’re lying you’ll just put her under. She’ll know your lying. That’s women for ya!

    Most appreciate being appreciated.

    Jaki X

  29. Jaki Flowers 1 January 2010 at 2:07 am #

    Ok, this really is one for the ladies. If a bloke does it they’l assume you have an agenda – most of the time, unless you look obviously gay.

    Spot a great -hairstyle – figure shown off well – excellent shoes – slightly pensive in the toilets but gorgeous girl – stunner

    Tell her about it. Takes seconds and will boost a Lady!

    The smiles and ‘you really think so?’s brighten my day too. Like I say, you can never lie. Just tell the truth to your fellow girlies / women. They love it. As you would.

    JX

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