Acts of Kindness Elevate Us – Inspiration From Paris

Notre Dame from under a bridge

Notre Dame from under a bridge

When was the last time you felt that open, warm or glowing feeling in your chest when you witnessed an act of kindness? Positive Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, calls this  “elevation” (p. 194).

I had the privilege of enjoying and savouring that sensation of elevation a number of times on a recent trip. I have told a few people some of the anecdotes and they enjoyed  hearing them, so I thought I would share them with you too. At the end of the post, I connect these stories to increasing our happiness.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I took a special trip with my teenage son.   We went to Paris for 5 days together, just the two of us. We moved around in a bubble of happiness and gratitude for being able to go on this trip.  (The trip my husband’s idea.  He had the privilege of seeing England, France and Portugal as a young child and found that that the experience greatly expanded his worldview. He wants that same experience for our children. Because I love to speak French (French school and exchange to France thirty years ago), he suggested I be the one to take our eldest to Paris. My response: Ok, then. I think I can manage that!) Anyway, while we were there, we witnessed and were the recipients of numerous acts of kindness.   These acts of kindness did give us that sense of “elevation”, that warm feeling in our chests and fostered a trust in the greater goodness of humanity.   They fed into our happiness on the trip, that’s for sure.

Here are some of the acts of kindness we witnessed or were recipients of:

  • When we first arrived, the lovely woman at the desk in our small hotel greeted us warmly and immediately checked us in, hours early, and gave us an upgrade on our room. That was a very positive way to start. We were grateful for her kindness and told her so.
  • On the Métro, the first evening, we were on our way to Montmartre for dinner. We got into an extremely crowded, hot and airless car. I stood beside an older woman and we exchanged friendly eye contact. Next stop, a couple of young women joined us. The train started up again and one of the young women started to cry and seemed very uncomfortable.   It seemed she was panicking due to the airlessness and heat in the car.   The older woman gently suggested she breathe slowly and deeply. Her friend comforted her.   A youngish man standing next to us got out his bottle of water and offered it to her.   I was moved by the kindness and humanity of those strangers who could have easily done nothing.   Then the young women wisely got off at the next stop. The older woman and I chatted a bit and I said that she had been very kind, as had the man next to her. I said it was heartening to see such kindness in a big city.   She took it in stride and then graciously offered us some suggestions for our jaunt to Montmartre.
  • On the third night, June 21, the solstice and La Fête de la Musique, when there is music on practically every street corner in Paris, we  were dining in the sunshine in the Latin Quarter to the sound of a loud brass band down the street. I had noticed an elderly woman farther inside the restaurant dining alone. When she finished her meal, one of the waiters said something like “let me take you” and put down the dishes he was carrying and helped her up, took her arm and gently escorted her out of the restaurant to what was presumably her home a couple of doors down. He then returned to business.  We thought that was lovely! We felt we were observing community as well as kindness.
  • We took the suburban train, the RER, to Versailles one day.  My son  mistakenly threw out his ticket, which we later found out he was going to need to get out of the station.   We experimented with one of the other tickets we had but that experiment left me on the outside and him on the inside. Luckily, almost immediately, a lovely elderly French woman invited my son to go through the turnstile with her so he was released! We were grateful for her kindness and told her so!
  • On our last day we were wandering around what we mistakenly thought was the “Palais Royale” but turned out to be the “Grand Palais”, one of the buildings built for the 1900 World’s Fair. We could see that there were some interesting things going on inside but weren’t sure about going in. Then we rounded the corner and we could suddenly see inside the exhibition hall from the large exit. I drew in my breath at the expanse of the building and said something profound like “wow!”   At that same moment, a man and his wife were coming out. The man noticed my reaction and immediately offered us a pass for two to go in.   We gratefully accepted and thanked him profusely for his kindness. We then started back round the building to the entrance. A minute or so later the same man came running up to us saying he had given us the used pass instead of the new one.   Again, so thoughtful. He offered us the new one. I asked if he was Parisian, and he said yes. I said we were Canadian and we were so moved by his kindness, and thank you again.


The view into Le Grand Palais that made me say "wow!"

The view into Le Grand Palais that made me say “wow!”

The exhibition turned out to be completely engrossing and transported us to another place.   It was particularly fascinating because we had to figure it out. We had no expectations going in – just an interest in the inside of the building from our glimpses from the outside (see the photo).  Inside was a city/town with installations in each of the buildings. My sense was that it was about human potential. So naturally, I was intrigued.  My son loved it too.  It was the last day of the exhibition and the viewers were all Parisian.   Not a fellow tourist in sight.  We felt privileged to be there.   It was called “La Cité Etrange” (“The Strange City”) and was the work of Emilia and Illya Kabakov, a Russian couple.   Here’s a 2.5 minute video about the exhibition.  It’s in French and has amazing photos.  And we experienced it all because of an act of kindness and generosity of a stranger.  We were very grateful and still are.

As I said above, Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis talks of the effect we experienced when witnessing other peoples acts of kindness – “elevation”.

I think there is also a relationship to the ideas in Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection by Barbara Fredricskon which I finished reading on the plane home.  (Love 2.0 was our current selection for the Making Room For You Book Group).  In doing a little research for this post, I found that in The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt cites research which indicated that the “vagus nerve” might be activated during “elevation” (p. 197).  This connects to Love 2.0. Barbara Frederickson introduces the vagus (pronounced like “Vegas”) nerve, which makes multiple stops through your organs from your brain stem and also connects your brain to your heart. (p. 54).   Fredrickson explains that in her definition of love (which you need to read more about to absorb since it is quite a provocative definition – see her website for more), love is connection and the vagus nerve is a biological asset that supports and coordinates your experiences of love. (p. 55).

So, whether it was witnessing the acts of kindness or the actual connection we felt and created as a result of those acts (thanking people, acknowledging their kindnesss), it looks like the vagus nerve and perhaps oxytocin (the “cuddle hormone”, also mentioned in Love 2.0) were involved.  We were definitely elevated.

Finally, by sharing these anecdotes with you, I am savouring them.   Savouring is one way of generating happiness, a “happiness activity”. So is gratitude, a positive emotion which we were feeling a lot of during that trip.   Practicing acts of kindness is also a way to happiness, another “happiness activity”.   The effects of practicing acts of kindness have been studied and talked about more than what I was focusing on here, the bearing witness to acts of kindness. See more on happiness activities in this blog post: Do You Know How Much Happiness Is Actually Within Your Control? and specifically on gratitude in: Appreciating the Power of Gratitude for Greater Happiness – Part 1 (which contains a great quote from Love 2.0) and Appreciating the Power of Gratitude for Greater Happiness – Part 2.

Isn’t in fascinating how so much can be found in one small anecdote? Kindness, gratitude, connection, elevation, even love…

I will end with this quote that popped up in my inbox this week from Life Coach Mary:

 “Simple kindness to
one’s self and all that lives
is the most powerful
transformational force of all.”
 –Dr. David R. Hawkins

Wishing you much kindness, gratitude, connection, elevation and love in your life, Milisa

PS  A fun and noteworthy coincidence: my mother reminded me before we left for Paris that she and I had been in Paris during exactly the same week 30 years ago.  She picked me up at the end of my 3 month French exchange and we had a beautiful two week trip together visiting the castles in the Loire valley and then Paris.   When she reminded me, I did remember experiencing the same Fête de la Musique, sitting in the sunshine with her absorbing some beautiful music.   I was so sad to be leaving France that I kept speaking French the whole time we were together. My Mum played along – she understood what I was saying and answered mainly in English.  She was the one to navigate the French menus though. She has an amazing memory and the vocabulary was all in her head from years ago, ready to be accessed.  So, the trip with my son was extra special, given the time I had had with my mother 30 years before.

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6 Responses to Acts of Kindness Elevate Us – Inspiration From Paris
  1. Paula Vital
    July 7, 2014 | 2:59 pm

    Beautiful, Milisa! Thanks for sharing!

    • Milisa Burns
      July 9, 2014 | 1:37 pm

      You are so welcome Paula! Thanks for reaching out and commenting. I really appreciate it! warmly, Milisa

  2. Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting)
    July 8, 2014 | 4:45 pm

    Milisa, you may know that I lived in France for a year as an exchange student, and then we lived in Paris again for a year as a young married couple. Both times, I found tremendous kindness from the French everywhere we went. The Parisiens have been much maligned as being rude, haughty and unkind – but in my experience, if you look for kindness, you will find it. Thank you for sharing your story and perspective – it makes me want to take my teenager to Paris soon! 🙂

    • Milisa Burns
      July 9, 2014 | 1:36 pm

      Lisa, thanks for this affirmation of our experience and for sharing yours! Yes, that’s the lesson isn’t it? We find what we look for! warmest wishes, Milisa

  3. Anna
    July 13, 2014 | 10:56 pm

    Lovely Blog Post! I had a kindness moment last week. I noticed a total immersion in what was going on {when I reflected after of course 🙂 } – a total “in the moment feeling”. An elderly man was in trouble and needed an ambulance. A group us helped him out but it was not an effort. Just what needed to be done and we were all on the same level. But I was amazed and encouraged by the amount of people who offered a hand and especially by a man who held the hurt man until the ambulance arrived.

    • Milisa Burns
      July 14, 2014 | 8:58 pm

      Thanks for sharing your kindness moment Anna! So it sounds like you were really elevated too – amazed and encouraged!- by these act of kindness. Your share has now warmed my heart too. 🙂 Milisa

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