We all know and love the “pay it forward” stories. Just last Christmas (2013), a customer at Starbucks generously paid for the order of the next person in line, who also paid for the person in line behind them, and so on…for 1,468 customers! (Read this story here) I also love the commercial (Watch it here) for “Random Acts of Kindness” in which one person shows kindness, inspiring the recipient of that act of kindness to show kindness to another person, who is inspired to do the same…and on down the line, contributing to an ongoing spiral of kindness that results in an Utopian environment of generosity and joy. We love these stories…. I love these stories. But, research suggests this is only part of the story. As Paul Harvey used to say, we need to know “the rest of the story.” People do not only pay generosity and kindness forward. We also pay greed forward. In fact, generosity gets paid forward more often as equality and fairness not as more generosity. And, people tend to pay greed forward more vigorously than generosity. Research suggests this is true for work tasks as well as finances. So, if we are the recipients of a stingy, greedy gift…or, if we are given the worst chores while someone else does the easier, “more enjoyable” chores, we may pass on the greedy, boring task out of our frustration and anger.
What does this mean for our families? An act of kindness to another family member may actually inspire more acts of kindness. A show of generosity toward family may promote more “fair sharing” among family members in the future. Acts of kindness and generosity can create an environment that promotes further kindness and sharing, an upward spiral leading to greater intimacy, joy, and celebration. On the other hand, sticking other family members with the worst chores will encourage them to do the same to another family member. Stinginess, greed, and self-centered actions and decisions by a family member can create a family environment promoting further greed and self-centeredness, a downward spiral leading to further frustration, isolation, and pain. Which environment will you promote in your family? The choice is yours. Start building an upward spiral by practicing kindness and generosity within your family.
By the way, if you find your family already in a downward spiral initiated by stinginess, greed, and self-centeredness, there is hope! The study mentioned earlier also found the negative emotions that drive us to pay greed forward can be reduced and even reversed. In the study, simply having a person rate how much they enjoyed three cartoons (a fun, humorous task) reduced the likelihood of passing the greed forward. So, if your family is caught in the downward spiral of stinginess and self-centeredness, reverse the cycle by stopping “one thing” and introducing “two new things.” First, stop “one thing”—engaging in stingy, self-centered behavior. Second, introduce “two new things”—kindness and generosity. Think about the other person and offer to do the more menial task (an act of generosity and kindness). Third, add some fun into your family. Play some fun game. Share some funny cartoons or your favorite joke. You can do all three of these things at the same time. Do all three and watch as your family spiral changes direction and becomes an upward spiral motivated by kindness, generosity, and celebration.