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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Psychology of Good Deeds

7:45 AM Posted by Tiffany Taft ,
I really don't like watching the news.  Or reading the news.  Full disclosure:  My main sources of news are The Daily Show and Colbert Report.  The humor takes the edge off of things.  It seems like all that we hear about lately is the latest shooting, cases of child abuse, our soldiers committing suicide.  It feels like the country's discourse has deteriorated beyond repair sometimes, as the media portrays us as this deeply divided populace of us-versus-them.  It can all feel very daunting, and dark.

Then I tap into the nerd center of my brain and remember the bell curve.  I'm sure you've seen this thing before

You know you love it.
For those of you who don't share my enthusiasm for statistics, you want to focus on the percentages on the graph.  According to the bell curve, most people will fall somewhere in the middle (in the blue area), with almost everyone else showing up in the next section (the red area).  The middle line represents the mean, or average.  95.4% of us will fall relatively close to "average" no matter what we're talking about.  The yellow areas are the outliers, the extremes.  I tend to believe that it is these 2 areas of the graph who are driving the national debate.  These are the people who we pay attention to.  We don't really give much thought to average.  Or a little above or below average.  But those people who are "out there," whether in a good way or not so good way, capture our collective attention.

I'm getting to my point, which isn't population statistics.

I came across an article on the psychology of good deeds.  "Paying it Forward" if you will.  The 2005 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who did 5 random acts of kindness per week were happier than people who didn't.  They experienced a "moral elevation" which makes us want to do more good deeds in order to continue with those warm fuzzy feelings.

Image from the movie"Pay It Forward."  What happened to that kid, anyway?
Contrary to what the news may imply, I don't think Americans are as divided or vitriolic as we're portrayed.  Rather, people are out doing good deeds every day.  It just doesn't make the news.

A prime example of this are the parents of Jayden Lamb.  Jayden was 9 years old when he passed away from cancer of the brain and spine. His parents created a Facebook page in his honor with the message to "Pay it Forward, Jayden Style."  As of today, Jayden's page has almost 40,000 Likes.  Their feed is full of stories of random acts of kindness from people all over the world.  What is a devastating loss has been turned into a movement that not only improves our society, but our mental well-being too.

Go on over and check it out.  I hope you can find a way to Pay it Forward this week.

Dr. T