Most of us like to think of ourselves as compassionate, genuinely kind people. I know I do; growing up, my mom taught me to hang out with the girl sitting alone on the swings and to always give up your seat to an elderly person even when you really, really want to sit.
So imagine my surprise when, recently, I gave a dollar to a man who was short on train fare, and he just took it from my hand without a word, and I found myself thinking, “A ‘thank you’ might have been nice.” Did I really just judge someone for not being grateful enough for my good deed? What about that loving, kind heart I always brag about having? My mind was cluttered with flashes of good-deed memories and my less than good-deed responses to them. There was a recent lunch when my colleague spent 15 minutes talking about her 4:30am workout routine and sugar-free healthy eating habits, which she seemed clearly proud of and I genuinely admired. I told her that I thought it was awesome that she was so dedicated to her health, and that I would have such a hard time keeping that lifestyle. She looked at me like I had told her that I thought it was awesome that she brushed her teeth. “Really?” she asked. “It’s not hard.” I had expected my compliment to be accepted, brightening my colleague's day and deepening our connection. Instead, I was left feeling more distant than ever.
Just last week I complimented an associate on some of her great work. My praise was real and genuine, but when she replied with just a “Thanks!”, I found myself thinking, “but…where’s my compliment?” I realized that all of these memories had one thing in common: I had held an expectation about how my kindness would be received, and the reality was different (read: worse) than my expectations. It’s been suggested that people are happier when they have low expectations for others. If I expected the man at the train station to hug me, look into my eyes and say, “I’m actually an undercover reporter writing a piece on kindness, and you were the only stranger to give me train fare. What’s your name? You are about to be the focus of a story on the front page of The New York Times,” I am left with a 99.9% chance of being disappointed when he responds otherwise. The societal concept of being rewarded for good deeds has been around for centuries, across many cultures. Karma preaches the idea that if we do good deeds, good things will happen to us (and if we don’t, of course, we are in trouble). There’s also the belief that the way that we live on Earth determines whether we get the post-death reward of Heaven or the infinite punishment of Hell. These ideas encourage acts of kindness by promising a satisfying outcome. If we are primed to believe that we will be rewarded for our kind acts, why wouldn’t we expect that others will reward us for them, too?
I don’t think we should lower our expectations for people, but I don’t think we should heighten them either. My meditation practice has encouraged me to work on learning to release expectations altogether. Mindfulness teaches us to watch our thoughts nonjudgmentally, to avoid the stress and feelings of inadequacy that come with beating ourselves up for our cognitions and desperately trying to change them. When practicing mindfulness, we’re strengthening our mental framework of curiosity, openness, and acceptance. We’re building a foundation of cognitive and emotional resilience that allows us to feel life fully—both the positive and the negative parts—without getting overwhelmed by them. The next time I pay it forward—by way of a compliment, a bus seat, or some spare change—I’ll take a page from the book of mindfulness. In the same way that I accept my thoughts non-judgmentally in meditation, I will accept the responses of others. No expectations. No fixation on rewards. Simply living and letting live, just the way we should.
When practicing mindfulness, we’re strengthening our mental framework of curiosity, openness, and acceptance