TEDxUCLA 2016: Push. Pull. Stretch.
Creating happiness through kindness
Growing up in Brazil I used to hear one thing all the time, and it was you should be nice to others. But when I was a kid I really didn’t understand why. Why couldn’t I just have all the toys to myself?
But like most things in life, my parents were right. There is a very high correlation between how kind you are and how happy you feel. So being kind makes you happier, and happy people are just more naturally inclined to be nice. So it’s a win-win situation.
And I don’t think I was taking too much advantage of it, at least not until I moved to New York in 2009. I was there to get my Masters in design and technology, and it didn’t take me too long to realize it was a little bit different than what I was used to. Being there was my lifelong dream! So there I was looking at the Empire State, getting coffee at SoHo, biking at the Hudson River, and doing all those things I’ve ever wanted.
But deep inside, I was not feeling happy. I was, in fact, feeling very lonely. Even though I was around thousands of people every day, I was really lacking meaningful interactions. All those little things that I used to take for granted in Brazil, like the random smiles, the small talks, and even the complete lack of personal space, I started missing that because it was starting to affect who I was.
It’s not that people were being mean or anything like that, but they were just not as open as I was used to. And as a consequence I started closing myself. The issue though, it didn’t become pretty obvious until I went back home for winter break and then suddenly I can’t stop hugging everyone I knew non-stop and I didn’t want to let them go. It turns out, I figured out, that there is a limit for how affection you can be, even for Brazilians. My friends started to think I was a little bit too creepy!
So when I came back to New York I decided to research kindness because I had a Master’s thesis to write after all, so why not a better way to spend it then finding how to make people nicer to me? I found out too, that when people were exposed to something nice on their routine, they are more inclined to be nice towards others. It doesn’t need to be something big, just meaningful enough to trigger their brain in a positive way.
So I kept thinking, well people are definitely not waiting for others to be nice in New York. So maybe if they’re surprised by me being nice to them, then they will be more inclined to pay it forward. And then maybe kindness can spread like fire and then maybe I can be the firestarter!
So I decided to all these, to test all these expectations, I started creating a series of urban interventions to bring joy to the routine of a New Yorker. I just wanted to rearrange unpleasant situations, you know, that would be more fun.
Some of them were very small. So for example, this time I would just share my umbrella with a stranger every time that it was raining. And I know here in LA It’s hard to relate to because it doesn’t rain much, and if it rains then you’re in your car, but in Manhattan it worked really well.
Then other times I would just go to Times Square and I’ll play games with people that had to wait in lines because I thought it would help them pass the time. And some people complained that they didn’t have time for exercise, so I started dancing with strangers on the sidewalk as they’re on their way to get somewhere so then there are no excuses.
Other interventions, on the other hand though, they were a little bit more elaborate. For example on Valentine’s Day I set up a free compliments booth at Union Square, and as you can expect, I was just there and I would welcome everyone that came to me and I would give them a free compliment. And after a little bit, I realized that I was probably the person getting the most compliments of all. But before you think, “Was those dudes trying to get a last-minute date for Valentine’s,” that was not the case! There were people from all ages and genders and backgrounds. They were just so happy about getting compliments that they wanted to give it back.
And another time I went to the subway station on Sixth Avenue and 23rd to offer free coffee. I heard from some people that they had to wake up really early to go to work and sometimes they didn’t even have time for coffee. So I thought that I wanted to make it easy for them. Before I did that though, my classmates warned me. They said, “Isa, nobody’s going to take drinks from strangers in New York.” I thought it was worth testing, and in fact it did take a little bit for the first person to arrive, but then that’s all, that was all it took. And there was a line of people because it’s free coffee, and they were making, they were being happier after.
Then another very good friend of mine, he challenged me, he said: “Isa, you know it’s only working because it’s you and you look harmless. If it was me that would never happen.” So I’m like, “Yeah? So why don’t you try then?” So there was this big beard guy and I made him go to the subway station and hold a bright pink sign saying “Would you smile for me?” And people smiled to him as well. Part of me was a little bit hurt because I wanted to feel special, but the other part was very happy that I proved my point, that people are not judgmental — at least not as much as we expected.
And after a full year of doing these interventions, suddenly I’m not only feeling so much happier, I’m also getting all this love from complete strangers, the same people that before were even avoiding my eye contact are now hugging me and saying all those sorts of nice things. It turned out that for me to change the world around me, all I needed to do was to change myself and be the person to take the first step and be kind, no matter what.
But I also learned throughout that year that being kind was not such a thoughtless process as I once assumed. It was perfectly doable after I came up with three steps to help me get there.
The first step was to make a mental decision every day to go out there and be kind. One can, one can argue that if you’re not being mean or rude and if you’re polite, you’re therefore being nice. But for me, I want it to come from a deeper place in my heart. I want it to come from a conscious decision of getting out of my comfort zone and doing something meaningful just for the sake of it.
And I’ve been telling about you, these interventions to you, and I was doing those interventions, so you might be thinking I’m a real extrovert, but that was really not the case. I’m freaking out! I’m freaking out now, I was freaking out back then, I just found my own ways to trick myself so I couldn’t walk away. I would find someone beforehand to volunteer and record or I would just put it on the internet saying, “I’ll be at this place at this time doing that thing,” and now that Facebook knows about it I have to do it.
But what was very uncomfortable for me at first, I started little by little and became much better to the point that I started craving those interactions. But it did have to come from that first step and that first decision.
The second step, that was the hardest one, but also the most meaningful. I had to learn to accept my own vulnerability. And it’s hard because we all got hurt before and we learn how to defend ourselves against it. But for me I couldn’t be genuinely nice if part of me was holding me down on the fear of being rejected or feeling exposed.
But if there is one thing I learned the most, it’s that people are not desensitized to kindness, not even New Yorkers. The moments that they understand that your intentions are good, then they relax and they relax themselves in, and that’s how I was able to build connections. That’s how I became happier. The moment that I learned just to accept and take the initiative to go there and be kind without knowing what to expect from them.
Which takes me to the third step which was the easiest one, the actual implementation was just do it. And it was about finding those little opportunities throughout the day to bring the best on you. Like holding the elevator door for someone you kind of know is behind you. Or maybe just leaving some extra time on the meter if someone has to park in there in a hurry. Or just even asking your co-worker how their day is going but really mean it. And be prepared if they say that it’s not going well!
But going through this process over and over really changed my life. It took me from what a, it took me from a very stressful moment to one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had. But most of all it taught me how to take ownership of my own happiness, and it was as easy as being the first person to go out there and be kind without knowing what to expect.
So now I’m a really deep believer that we can all improve the world through kindness. All we need is a bunch of firestarters, and I’m looking at you! So in order to set the fire going, I left a little note under your seat and I hope you enjoy it. Thank you very much.