Picture this - you arrive at your favorite local coffee shop and order your usual. Come to find out someone else kindly covered your morning cup. You might not know who this person is, nor will you likely ever know, but your morning has certainly started off on the right foot. From there, you might feel compelled to share in your good luck. Of course, you have no way to know who paid for your coffee, so you might simply do the same for the next person who comes in for their drink. This act of kindness is a way to "pay it forward." You are not returning the kindness or favor to the original giver; rather, you are sending it on to another.
Imagine if this went on all day, and everyone bought the following customer a cup of coffee. That part of town might be a bit more blissful than the rest. Unsurprisingly, there have been studies run to see just how and why "paying it forward" works.
A 2010 study led by Simone Schnall and colleagues looked at a group of participants who watched an Oprah clip where musicians are seen thanking the teachers who mentored them. The participants were more likely than another group (who saw a clip from a nature documentary) to react with feelings of optimism and warmth. What was the big response that supports the excellent nature of paying it forward? Participants stated that they had a desire to help others and wanted to be a better person after having seen someone else act from kindness.
The Depth of Ripple Effects
Beyond interactions and shared experiences in society, compassion and acts of kindness have a permanent effect on your brain functioning. According to a recent study seeking to explore peoples' ability to cultivate compassion over time, short-term compassion training benefits most. Such training emphasizes kind behaviors and explores how to act from kindness regularly. With consistent practice, peoples' altruistic behaviors see an increase. Not only that but there are individually-specific changes in neural responses brought about by the compassion training. (Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering, Helen Y. Wang, et al)
What does all this mean? At its core, the study shows how to rewire the brain through learning. One of the main ways people learn is through the observation of others. If you don't have the time to attend compassion training, you might begin to practice one act of kindness per day. In doing so, others can learn from your behavior and begin to extend the service to another. While you might not immediately feel the ripple effects of your kindness, know that your actions run deeper than the moment.
Building Blocks of Kindness
In the same study mentioned previously, where participants watched an Oprah clip, another group was brought in. Participants were asked, casually, if they would complete another questionnaire for a different study. This question was posed after participants had watched the Oprah clip or the nature documentary clip. Participants in the Oprah group spent more time answering the added questions than those in the nature documentary group.
Such attention to detail and giving of their time supports the idea that witnessing kindness, whether through Oprah or in your local coffee shop, lasts beyond that one interaction. The tendency to then pay it forward is known as "prosocial" behavior and builds over time.
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