Driving to North Devon last week our car broke down. Not knowing anything about cars my partner and I felt helpless stranded at the side of the road. There was nothing we could do but call the Automobile Association (AA) and hope for the best.
When the AA man finally arrived he was cheerful and immediately got to work. It turned out that one of the cylinder coils had burnt out and also managed to burn the wires and melt the cap that attached to it. Without the replacement parts at hand, Matt, our AA man, had to improvise and construct a temporary fix.
The Kindness of Strangers
Once the car was running again, Matt went beyond the call of duty. He followed us all the way to our holiday apartment, offered to help carry up our luggage (we declined, of course, but it was a nice gesture), and then escorted us to a nearby garage where we left the car for repairs. Finally, he gave us a lift back to our holiday apartment and our holiday could finally begin.
Unfortunately for us, the garage couldn’t fix the car and so it had to be towed back to London leaving us on holiday in Devon without any transport. The owner of the garage kindly lent us a car for three days for free, even though our car had already been removed from his garage. Because of his generosity we were able to continue our holiday and see some of the beautiful sights that North Devon has to offer.
Our holiday could have been ruined by our car breakdown, but instead it was saved by the kindness of strangers.
Why are People Helpful?
This experience made me curious about what it is that impels some people to be helpful. Is it due to personality, mood, or religious beliefs? Or could it have something to do with where we live? Are people more friendly or helpful outside of big cities, I wondered?
Here in London you do still encounter people who are kind, friendly and helpful but life in a big city is fast-paced and it does often feel like it’s a case of each man for himself.
The way we relate to other people has such a big impact on the overall impression and experience of living in or visiting a particular place. In fact, a report by The Young Foundation found that how people treat each other – civility – is more important than crime statistics in influencing how people feel about where they live and their sense of belonging.
In Britain, the 2000 General Household Survey found that London, the West Midlands and the South East had the lowest proportion of neighbourly people, while Scotland, Wales, the North East and the South West had the highest. Interestingly, the regions with the least neighbourly people are also the most racially diverse and the most urbanised.
The Kindness of Strangers in Cities
Robert Levine, writing in American Scientist, says that ‘places, like individuals, have their own personalities.’ Levine has studied the kindness of strangers in cities across the world and found that people in more crowded cities were much less likely to take the time to help.
This is because crowding leads to alienation, anonymity and social isolation and people feel less responsible for their behaviour toward others, especially strangers.
But Levine and his researchers found that not all big cities exhibit this pattern and that people in Portuguese and Spanish speaking cities tended to be among the most helpful despite problems like long-term political instability and high crime rates in some of them.
Social psychologist Aroldo Rodrigues puts it down to ‘simpático’, a Brazilian concept that encompasses ‘a range of desirable social qualities – to be friendly, nice, agreeable and good-natured, a person who is fun to be with and pleasant to deal with…going out of one’s way to assist strangers is part of this image.’
Apart from a couple of exceptions, Levine found that people were more willing to assist others in countries with low economic productivity, in cities with a slow pace of life, and in cultures that emphasized the value of social harmony.
He concluded that helping others is more influenced by the characteristics of the local environment and less dependent on the nature of the local people.
So it may be true that people in Devon are more likely to be helpful to strangers because it is less crowded, more rural and has a slower pace of life.
The Benefits of Being Kind to Others
But are there other reasons people are kind to strangers apart than geography? I know how good I feel when I’ve been helpful to a stranger and wondered if it could be one of the reasons why people are kind to others.
Kindness is Good for You
Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that doing nice things for people led to a significant increase in people’s positive moods. It also led to an increase in relationship satisfaction and a decrease in social avoidance.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a professor at the University of California, Riverside says that, “People who engage in kind acts become happier over time …When you’re kind to others, you feel good as a person—more moral, optimistic, and positive.”
The Feel Good Factor
It turns out that this feel good factor could be due to elevated levels of the brain’s natural versions of morphine and heroin, known as endogenous opioids. They cause elevated levels of dopamine in the brain, so we get a natural high, often referred to as “Helper’s High.”
According to the scientist and author David R. Hamilton, acts of kindness are often accompanied by emotional warmth which produces the hormone oxytocin in the brain and throughout the body.
Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the ‘love hormone’ as it is released during and after childbirth and orgasm and promotes bonding between people.
It seems that there is no such thing as a simple act of kindness. Environmental, social, cultural and economic factors play a determining role. And so do our hormones and our emotions. We do good because it makes us feel good.
One thing is certain, however. From now on, whenever I think of Devon I will forget about the ever-present rain. Instead, I will forever associate it with the kind and helpful people who made our holiday so memorable.
Photo: Thanks to Ed Yourdon on Flickr.com