I rode the subway home feeling drained—it had been a long day. The train was packed, not so packed I couldn’t move, but if I swiveled, my shoulder would graze the shoulder of the person next to me. Too constrained to reach for my phone to listen to music to tune out the world, I decided to instead tune into the world around me. I scanned the train for one of those quiet moments between a mother and child, a moment of recognition between two coworkers or friends who haven’t seen each other in forever and happen to be crammed next to each other on their ride home, or a selfless moment when one gives up their seat for another. After a day like mine I needed a moment—any moment. No luck. So instead, I settled in on a woman seated a few feet away, who had a series of tattoos beautifully executed down her arm. I’m not typically a “tattoo person,” but there was something about the way the images wove together on her arm that fascinated me. Thinking back, perhaps I was trying to read her story. Nevertheless, I never finished my contemplation because then, without warning, something happened.
The woman, looking straight at me, yelled, “What are you looking at?” It’s possible it was the first time she asked, but it may also have been the second or third time, because when my gaze moved from her arm to her face she already looked exasperated. I could feel the people around me get tense. Still in shock and definitely unclear on what was happening, I said, “I was admiring your tattoos. They are beautiful.” And instantly, her whole body softened, and she smiled at me and said “Thank you.” I could feel the relief come over the few people on the train who experienced the moment with me. When my stop came, we caught eyes once again. I smiled, she smiled back, and we each went on with the rest of our evening.
My encounter on the train made me think of those very small and seemingly inconsequential gestures between people that transform the moment, your energy, or even your spirit. They are so little that you may not even think of them as anything more than an offhand gesture. But the truth is, these small gestures have the ability to change people. Think about it, just smiling at a friend or even a stranger on the street elicits a smile back. Take it one step further to complimenting someone’s shoes, dress, or handbag. A smile followed by a thank you or a conversation follows. And take it even a step further to writing a note or an email to tell someone “thank you” for helping you with a computer problem or inviting you to dinner the day before. These small acts of kindness make a difference in the day of the recipient and change you as well.
In terms of science—because you know I like to back everything up with science—early studies show that receiving a compliment stimulates the striatum, an area of the brain responsible for the learning or skill-consolidating process during sleep. So, giving a compliment, no matter how seemingly benign, actually strengthens the receiver’s ability to learn a new skill and, in turn, perhaps even enhance performance personally and professionally. And on top of that, feeling positive emotions like happiness or gratitude (two things one may feel after receiving a compliment) has been shown to strengthen immune function, reduce stress, and enhance function of the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for cognitive function.
For the person giving the compliment—that’s you—the benefits range from decreased stress, blood pressure, and depression to increased self-esteem, life expectancy, and overall happiness. Through MRI technology, scientists discovered an interesting phenomenon: parts of the brain “glow” or activate when we give. The same parts of the brain activate when we experience pleasure. Yes, that means our brain responds to giving in the same way it responds to sex or eating decadent foods.
The moral of my subway story is simple. Doing or saying something complimentary, generous, or nice changes people—both the receiver and you. The more you give, the more you get. And the more you get, the more you’re inclined to give. It’s a beautiful reciprocal relationship.