Health

Want to be happier? Give the benefit of the doubt

When my daughter was six weeks old, I took her out grocery shopping solo for my first time. It’s a nerve-wracking event for any new mom and with my colicky daughter, I was quite keyed up. Sure enough just as I was loading bags into my car and snapped her car seat into my Toyota Matrix, she started to wail. Her heart-wrenching cry was then still new to me and often caused me to tear up as well.

Benefit of the doubt pic

When my daughter was six weeks old, I took her out grocery shopping solo for my first time. It’s a nerve-wracking event for any new mom and with my colicky daughter, I was quite keyed up. Sure enough just as I was loading bags into my car and snapped her car seat into my Toyota Matrix, she started to wail. Her heart-wrenching cry was then still new to me and often caused me to tear up as well.

In a frantic state to get the car moving so she’d be soothed to sleep, I backed out of my parking spot. Fast. And didn’t look. And bumped right into a Porsche. Oh yes.

Upset and teary, I got out of the car to face a young, blonde, stilettoed driver who was readying herself to rip into me. I put my hands up and stopped her, explaining tearfully that I was a new mom and my six-week-old was crying badly in the backseat. I was sorry but, preoccupied with her crying, I didn’t look before I backed out. I wasn’t trying to pull out ahead of her in the lot—it was an accident. Stilettos calmed down instantly. It’s okay, she said and after asking if my daughter was hurt, we quietly exchanged phone numbers to deal with the collision fallout.  

I thought of that experience this week as I talked with Kurt Gray, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland and researcher in the area of good intentions and positive life experiences. In his work, Gray’s research discovered that how we perceive other people’s intentions affect how we experience the world. Take for example, an electric static shock you’ve received from someone—you react, shocked, a little stung even. But wouldn’t your response to the shock be different if you knew you received the shock accidentally rather than from a friend who purposely dragged their feet over carpet in order to give you a rude surprise? Our perception of what other people had intended can help shape the experience we’re having. As Gray notes in his study: “The results confirm that good intentions—even misguided ones—can soothe pain, increase pleasure, and make things taste better. More broadly, these studies suggest that basic physical experience depends upon how we perceive the minds of others.”

So what can we do with this? “One way to feel less hurt about situations is to give people the benefit of the doubt,” Gray advises. Think in situations such as someone pulling a cut-and-chat in the coffee shop line up or stealing your parking spot. Your reaction depends on how you choose to see it—was it intentional? (She was trying to snag that spot on purpose and she’s out to get me!) Or necessary? (She’s in a hurry and needs to get in and out of the mall fast.) Easier said than done to offer understanding in place of anger, but it’s worth considering the next time that BMW cuts you off in traffic.

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