We all have problems. Not a single one of us is living a perfect life. Syndicated advice columnist Amy Alkon recently gave a TedX talk titled The Surprising Self-Interest in Being Kind to Strangers, where she discusses how our current society removes many of us from a close community where we know everyone and everyone knows us. We're psychologically programmed, according to Alkon, to help our friends and family, but at the same time programmed to be wary of strangers.

Many of us don't even know neighbors we've lived next to for years--me included. I've lived across the hallway from the same couple for almost 8 years. I've said hello, I've held the door for them, and once I even took their garbage out for them, but I don't know if they have children, what they do for a living, or their first names (their last name is on their mailbox). I'm sure I'm not the only person who doesn't know their neighbors.

Because we're psychologically programmed to fear strangers, we often just avoid strangers--even though the reasons for that fear no longer really exists. We don't generally have to worry about people from across the street invading our house and stealing our stuff, and if they do, we have a police force that will go and get them. So, it's just vestiges of a different time when strangers meant war or disease or both.

Alkon says the science shows that helping strangers not only helps that individual but helps you. She shared a story of women with multiple sclerosis who volunteered to help on an MS hotline--helping other multiple sclerosis patients. While they achieved their goal of helping others, after doing this they were seven times happier than the people they had counseled. Who got the greater benefit?

I've experienced the kindness of strangers. Many years ago, in the days before cell phones and GPS, I moved across the country from Utah to Long Island, New York, for graduate school. As someone who learned to drive in a town where going under the speed limit and stopping at yellow lights was the norm, when I drove into Manhattan in the middle of rush hour and without a clue of how to get to where I was going, I was completely overwhelmed.

My good friend, also named Amy, was with me, and she had maps spread across her lap, and was frantically trying to figure out how on earth we could get to the Long Island Expressway. A man in the car next to us, motioned for us to roll down our window. We were terrified. We'd heard about scary New Yorkers, but we rolled down our window anyway. "You guys lost?" The maps and the Utah license plate had given us away.

He gave us directions to the Long Island Expressway and off we went. At the next stoplight, he motioned for us to roll down our window again. "It's too complicated," he said, "Follow me." And we did. He took us to the on-ramp and then flipped a U-turn and left. We went safely on our way, in awe of the kindness of a stranger.

It absolutely took time out of his day. He wasn't going to Long Island. He didn't know us. We didn't know him. There was no opportunity for us to repay his kindness--we have no idea who he was.

If we reach out to a stranger, we can make their life better and our own as well. I live in a town with lots of tourists who are frequently lost and who don't speak any German. Whenever I see someone looking lost, I'll stop and ask if they need directions. This habit must shine through my face because now I'm frequently stopped by strangers who need directions. I'm always happy to help.

Alkon shared a story of getting a stranger a bottle of water after finding out that this woman's father had just died. It made the woman feel better, but the water had nothing to do with it. "What mattered is that another human being--one who didn't even known her--cared that she was suffering and tried to make things better for her."

You'll feel better if you help people. Alkon's career as an advice columnist started because she gave free advice on a street corner. My career started in the same way--giving free advice on my blog. (I still answer hundreds more emails than I ever publish.) Try being kind to others, especially strangers, and watch it make a difference in your life, their lives, and the world around you.

Published on: Dec 12, 2016