Why kindness never goes out of style

December 02, 2013

teacher in class

We heard a story the other day that warmed our slightly world-weary hearts. A fifth grade teacher asked her class to take out three sheets of paper and cut them into 24 roughly equal squares. Each one of those squares represented a person in class. With pens in hand, she asked each of them to take the next 20 minutes to write down one nice thing about each person in class. It didn't have to be remarkable, although it could be, just something you appreciated, like a talent, a physical trait, something about their personality.

There was nervous laughter from some. Others got right to work, the business of positive feedback hot in their hands. The slips were signed, labeled for the intended recipients and hand-delivered to their desks.

boy with pencil

This teacher was creating a memory around kindness. Was she aware of how powerful this exercise really was? It was as if she was putting something into motion that would fight every impulse we have as human beings to focus on and remember the negative.

Why are negative encounters easier to remember? Why can nine nice things happen only to leave us remembering the tenth slightly off-putting or unpleasant one? Turns out there's a reason, according to an article in O, The Oprah Magazine:

"'The same neurohormonal chemistry that evolved to get us away from charging lions is locked and loaded today when we feel the least bit threatened,' says Rick Hanson, PhD, founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. 'But while this stress reaction may have been helpful in the Serengeti, it's harmful now.' One reason: Negative encounters tend to leave stronger impressions than positive ones because they provoke more intense reactions. As a result, we develop a selective memory for failures, slights and bad breaks...."

If this is true that negative encounters tend to stick with us longer than positive - and we know that it is - then this teacher was creating a positive encounter that had the power to crowd out lingering negatives. This exercise was so positive it just might undo the work of the offhand remark, the team you didn't make, the invite you never received. This act of kindness on the part of the teacher and 24 classmates might make a lasting difference.

And we can say that it did. Because it happened to one among us and she remembers it more than 30 years later. And she still has all 24 scraps of paper. Thank you, Mrs. Brumfield, from all of us. Your kindness is timeless.

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