It’s impossible to know how a simple gesture affects a stranger.
I know this from a particularly hard period of my life years ago. I was dealing with a health problem at the time and I felt discouraged. Discouraged, and sad.
Discouraged, sad and lonely.
I never knew what to say, so I isolated myself. Feeling lonely made me go out of my way to isolate more. It was like a bad math problem I couldn’t solve.
One afternoon I stopped into a Starbucks on the way back from a doctor’s appointment. I parked on the street in a depressed part of Minneapolis. The housing projects loomed over the edge of the freeway.
A man beside me in line smiled and hummed a tune. He was older than me and wore a coat missing a few of its buttons. He grinned and sang. I wondered made him feel so happy.
At the front of the line I ordered a coffee. The barista set it on the counter and thanked me.
“Don’t I have to pay?” I asked.
“Oh no, Charlie covered you,” she said, pointing to the singing man as he left the store.
He pulled a suitcase and a sign under his arm. I ran out of the store and caught up with him. He stopped and set his sign on the ground.
“Thank you for buying my coffee. You don’t have any—did you get some?”
He smiled and said, “Sister, today you needed it more than me.” He started walking then and I read the sign he carried: Homeless, God Bless.
I stood on the corner as the cars whizzed past the man. I knew everything would be okay, and I wondered how such a small gesture could shift the frame of how everything looked.
I later learned that there is science behind why kindness works the way it does. When we help other people our bodies respond—releasing endorphins and oxytocin (the “love chemical”).
Oxytocin does more than generate good feelings. It reduces inflammation by releasing nitric oxide which directly affects blood pressure and heart health. These studies help explain recent findings that show a strong social network filled with connection, (that’s the important part), is protective to good health.
Science has shown us that kindness lowers stress and boosts our immune functioning. It improves our coronary, insulin regulation and gut function. It shifts our mental outlook in an instant.
Kindness can be simple too – ranging from listening to smiling, or the smallest gesture of help.
It doesn’t take much. Think of Charlie.