We’re generally pretty quick to spot when someone behaves badly towards us. If someone snaps at you, or ignores you, or undermines you – as I say, you’re unlikely to miss these moments, because our brains are wired to be alert to threats of all kinds.
Unfortunately, we’re not quite as good at taking note of the little kindnesses of daily life. It is, however, possible to train your brain to look for good intentions, as evidenced by the following anecdote from psychologist and author Dr Rick Hanson.
In a Psychology Today article, he relates being at an airport shop and stopping to buy some water. At the shop fridge, a man was bent over, loading bottles into the refrigerator. Hanson reached past him and pulled out a bottle the worker had put in. The man looked up, stopped what he was doing, got a bottle from another shelf and handed it to Hanson, saying, ‘This one is cold’. Hanson thanked him and took the colder bottle.
The worker did not know Hanson. He would never see him again. His job was to stack shelves, not to serve customers. He was busy, notes Hanson, and looked tired.
‘But he took the time to register that I’d gotten a warm bottle, and he cared enough to shift gears and get me a cold one’, Hanson writes. ‘He wished me well.’
A week on, Hanson writes that he can see the worker’s friendly eyes. Yes, it was just a bottle of water, but he felt ‘warmed by his kindness and buoyed by his good intentions.’ When you recognise people’s positive intentions, says Hanson, you feel safer, more supported, and happier.
Similarly, when other people see that you recognise their good intentions, they feel appreciated and more inclined to treat you well.
The problem is, it can be easy to miss others’ good intentions. Modern life can be busy, and it’s easy to get lost in our own heads, to distractedly be running from one job to the next. It’s easy to miss or to quickly forget about the little things, like the shop worker who makes the effort to get you that cold bottle of water.
In contrast, our brains have a built-in negativity bias, and are always scanning for threats or bad intentions. Not only that, our brain reacts to novelty. For example, if you’re driving and you want to pass someone out, the other driver may politely slow down and make way for you to pass. This is common behaviour, so we barely notice it. But if the driver speeds up to prevent you passing, or if they gesticulate wildly towards you – well, that’s novel, so it gets noticed and we’re very slow to forget about it.
All this means it’s much easier for us to notice the negative than the positive. As Hanson often says, negative experiences stick like velcro, while the positives slip away like teflon.
When it comes to other people, what all this means is that you have to actively look for good intentions.
A small example of my own: a day after reading Rick Hanson’s piece, I went for a walk. It wasn’t forecast to rain but alas, it soon started to pour from the heavens. Soaked and frustrated, I cut short my walk and made a dash to a nearby cafe. Another woman with the same idea got there before me, and held the door open as she waited for me. As I passed, she smiled and said, ‘The Irish weather, don’t you just love it!’
It was a small gesture of humour and kindness. Given my mood at the time, I might easily have quickly forgotten it and returned to bemoaning the foul weather, but it dawned on me that this was one of those moments that Rick Hanson was describing.
These kind of everyday moments are common, and it will help your mood and well-being if you train yourself to spot and savour them. When you actively look for good intentions, you will, as Rick Hanson points out, find them all around you.
(First published in Southern Star on 12/10/2023).