I spent the last week visiting New York, bouncing around the perpetual hustle of the island known as Manhattan. It was here that I decided to conduct a little experiment.
As anyone who has been there knows, the inhabitants of this place are typically a harried bunch, and for someone visiting from far-off lands (like Phoenix), they can come off as brusque at best and downright rude and miserable at worst.
So as I trundled about through subways and stairwells, sidewalks and shops, I got to thinking about what Tony Hsieh, the visionary CEO of Zappos, calls collisions: unplanned encounters between human beings and the opportunities they represent. For Tony, they are opportunities primarily for the increased creativity and productivity the can create; For me (and my experiment), these same collisions represent the opportunity to deliberately shape my world by creating moments of surprise, joy, and happiness in others (and by extension, it turns out, myself).
The idea is rooted in neuroscience as much as it is in common sense. When we remember that the human brain is largely a programmed stimulus/response mechanism, it becomes clear that every input it receives, whether in thought, word, or deed, has the potential to alter its course. We can look to our own lives and see: a kind word of support creates one experience; a criticism another. A good-morning smile yields one set of feelings; a premature honk from an impatient driver something completely different.
What this means is that each collision is pregnant with possibility. Each one offers us an opportunity to tangibly shape our world, brick by brick (or smile by smile or frown by frown—it’s our choice). It’s true, we are the creators of our world.
With all of this in mind, I took the bump-and-run-no-time-to-say-excuse-me-or-smile-or-act-in-any-way-as-if-I-am-interacting-with-another-sentient-creature disposition that seems so prevalent in New York as a kind of thrown gauntlet. What impact might small, deliberate acts have on the seemingly callous current of humanity in which I was being swept along? I asked. My goal was to use every collision as an opportunity to put a smile on someone’s face.
My weapons were simple: eye contact, a smile, authentic thank yous and compliments and brief pauses to inquire into the well-being of my collision-ee (“How is your day going?” He asks the clerk before ordering…).
Simple acts like holding doors open, especially when investing the extra three seconds it takes to do so for people outside the conventional six-foot door-holding radius, proved effective as well.
I measured my success in returned smiles and thank yous and expressions of appreciation, joy, and pleased astonishment. And successful, I was. I surprised even myself in how simple and near effortless it was to brighten a single moment for others. I was able to turn hundreds of collisions into flashes of joy, hope, and optimism and leave New York City, at least I hope, a little bit better than when I found it.
But it doesn’t end there. For I also experienced a kind of living demonstration of the principle of karma: finding even myself delightfully nourished by these buoyant encounters as well. “A rising tide lifts all ships,” they say. Indeed it seems it does.
So my invitation to you is to run your own experiment. Set an intention to use the collisions in your day to brighten the moment for whomever you happen to encounter and to see if it’s not true that you yourself are not lifted by the effort as well.
But, be careful, kindness can be addictive.
About the Author
Eric Walrabenstein is a nationally-recognized speaker, teacher, and author and is one of the most sought-after authorities on the application of yogic technology for self healing and empowerment in the nation. As the founder of one of Arizona’s largest yoga centers, and Arizona's first 500-hour Master-Level Yoga Teacher Training Program, Eric has long been dedicated to making ancient wisdom and techniques practical and relevant for people from all walks of life. In addition to his work in his wellness center in Phoenix, Arizona, he is the creator of BOOTSTRAP, a yoga-based program to help troops and veterans heal from post traumatic stress as well as BetterBox, a subscription box revolutionizing the self-improvement industry. An ordained Yogacharya (preceptor of yoga), Eric is currently finishing a book on the Science of Happiness.