Whatever happened to the importance of being nice?

I raised my kids using the word a hundred times a day…play nice…nice job… make nice…that’s not nice.  When your actions illustrated the word nice, I taught them, you were thoughtful, helpful, compassionate. You treated others as you wished to be treated. Yet in today’s world where the decidedly not nice rudeness, narcissism and entitlement of a Donald Trump or Bill O’Reilly often rule the day, it’s hard to convince a child that nice guys will be rewarded, not punished, for their good nature.

Saying “he was nice” to describe a guy on a first date has become more a curse than a compliment. In the romantic realm, it’s a short hand antonym for bold or sexy or strong. It’s a beige word…like a boring cousin who finishes a distant second in earnings to his more assertive colleagues. When I taught, I encouraged my third graders to be nice people who prioritized kindness and warmth and respect. I had a poster that read It’s nice to be important…but it’s more important to be nice. What I learned from the kids, and see repeatedly through the years, is that the higher the level of our self esteem, the more likely we are to treat others with kindness. Hear that Mr. President?

Last week my daughter Carrie got into a cab and noticed there was a credit card left in the backseat terminal. She took it home, tracked down the owner on Facebook, and messaged her the good news that her card was safe. Nice job. My friend Judy ordered food delivered to the hospital waiting room where her neighbor and large extended family waited six hours for a loved one to come out of surgery. So nice. And when I attended a friend’s funeral and his wife eulogized him, saying there wasn’t one night in 45 years that he didn’t thank her for dinner…whether she prepared it or just served up some take out Chinese food, how extraordinarily nice I thought.

I must admit lately I haven’t exhibited an overabundance of nice behavior in my own life.  When I tried to analyze why, I realized that in dealing with my pervasive worry about the current state of our world, I’ve been anxiously distracting myself. When I am rushing, I’m less inclined to let someone waiting to enter the roadway go ahead of me. And more inclined to take credit…or assign blame…or ignore a smile. It’s not necessarily that being nice takes more time, it just takes a heightened awareness, a paying closer attention to the impact we are having on our immediate world.

So a few weeks ago I made a vow to exercise my emotional nice muscle for a few minutes a few times a week. Minute intimate actions. To be myself but a little nicer.  I already knew who I should send a note to…who I owed a call…who would appreciate some acknowledgement.  I also knew when staying silent would be most appreciated. What I once knew but almost forgot were the lovely rewards that followed every small act.

The grateful smiles I received for passing tissues to a sneezing passenger three seats away from me on a plane… for helping an elderly man empty his cart at the Costco register… for telling the woman who dishes my frozen yogurt a few times a week that she has such a lovely manner and is really so good at her job…made me smile inside far longer. How much disproportionate happiness can be bestowed by a small compliment! Would I have done any of those things before my heightened consciousness… I’m not sure.

And wait there’s more good news. A recent study revealed an unheralded bonus in doing nice things for others. It showed that what consistently makes us happy is focusing “prosocially” on those around us. Doing nice things boosts our serotonin, the neurotransmitter that gives us the feeling of satisfaction and well being we take anti depressants to boost. Doing nice things actually changes our brain in ways to make us feel better.

Abraham Joshua Hershel said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” So maybe one of the nicer things we can do for ourselves amid the chaos of 2017 is to be more our best self. Besides, no matter how many headlines scream the opposite, I won’t ever let myself believe that nice guys finish last.


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