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How to Get Rich in the Kindness Economy

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My friend said that wearing a mask added an unexpected challenge to her grocery shopping experience: nobody can see you smile.

She had always depended on a polite smile to smooth over shopping-cart traffic jams and accidental incursions of personal space, and now this versatile social tool was unavailable.

I discovered a similar problem on my first silent retreat. I had a habit of saying “Oh, sorry!” whenever I thought I might be in someone’s way, but we’d all taken a vow of silence, so I couldn’t. I felt like a wrecking ball.

In the end, my friend determined that it didn’t really matter, because people can somehow sense your attitude towards them, even without obvious visual cues like smiling. All that’s ever needed is genuine goodwill, even if it isn’t coming out of your face.

I had noticed this phenomenon too, while doing my secret ally practice. When you feel open and benevolent towards people, even when you don’t express it, people tend to be more open and benevolent towards you.

Usually, when I walk somewhere, I’m mostly concerned with where I’m going, or what I’m thinking. The other humans I pass essentially feel like part of my surroundings, like other cars on the road. I’m respecting any nearby humans, but not exactly appreciating them. Not cold, just not warm.

At some point, most days, I remember the possibility of being intentionally openhearted and appreciative towards nearby people. Without saying anything, or affecting a different expression, I just soften internally, and try to regard passers-by as a kind of pleasant company, rather than irrelevant strangers.

Whenever I do this, a certain magic happens. The people I encounter seem to be friendlier and more upbeat than usual. More people say hi as they pass, more spontaneous exchanges happen, and more dogs want me to pet them.

Both my friend and I have experimented with this. It seems clear to both of us that adopting a sense of conscious appreciation for other people has an immediate effect on the people around you. Quite often, as soon as you flip into this attitude, somebody immediately says hi, warmly comments on the weather, or asks you a question, as though you’re the most approachable person they see.

It seems almost paranormal, but I think it’s just more of nature’s evolutionary fine-tuning. Being such social mammals, it would make sense for us to have an uncanny sensitivity for detecting, another person’s sentiments toward us, even when they’re not advertising them.

This discernment wouldn’t require any conscious thought – that person is smiling, therefore they’re kind, therefore they won’t kill and eat me, therefore I can feel safe right now. It would just be an intuition, a “vibe” you get from the quality of someone’s presence. If the vibe suggests goodwill and openness, you naturally feel safe, and more inclined to be open and kind yourself.

Human beings greatly value feeling safe and appreciated, maybe more than anything. If you’ve ever been the new kid at school, and someone invited you to sit with them, or explained how something works – in that moment, that person might have seemed like an angel. To be met with benevolence when you’re expecting indifference is one of the most gratifying feelings a person can have.  

So if this is true — if people can detect another’s inner warmth and open-heartedness, and tend to respond in kind, then it’s worth intentionally walking around with a warm and open-hearted attitude. It really just takes an intention. I try to do at least little of it whenever I go out. Not only is it worthwhile to do for your own sake, it’s good for the world. It’s win-win-win — it feels good to do, it helps others feel good, and helps them help others feel good. Benevolence, when you put it into the world, gets around.

In that sense, this sort of practice is a kind of wealth creation, which benefits everyone. You produce goodwill, rather than indifference, and send it out into the world. This wealth reaches others, and supports them in producing more of it.  

As a society, we’re preoccupied with the monetary economy. We even call it the economy, as if humans don’t produce and exchange any other forms of value.

We can create the wealth of goodwill every time we’re near other people. It’s valued by everyone, and it’s free to create and circulate. When others receive your goodwill, their position in the economy improves. With this new wealth, they can create and distribute more wealth, and so on, and society prospers. We can all be rich.


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Photo by Ignacio Brosa

Sujata May 26, 2020 at 2:33 am


The 'Staunch May 29, 2020 at 9:15 pm

He’s got a very nice post on how to get rich in this our generational economy

Marko May 26, 2020 at 2:38 am

Hi! I have been following your blog for some years now but this is the first time commenting. :) I have experienced a very similar thing when practicing sheng zhen qi gong. The qi gong is supposed to work towards opening your heart and cultivating unconditional love. Whenever I would practice it, even if it is one short session, the next day everyone would just be kinder to me (basically what you described in this post), even the horrible mean boss I had :O :). We really should cultivate this attitude and what you say, enrich others more often, especially since it is free :)

David Cain May 26, 2020 at 9:03 am

Hi Marko. I should try qi gong!

I struggled in this post to convey what I mean by “openheartedness,” as the heart is really just a metaphor when it comes to emotion, but I don’t know any other phrase to use for it. It’s an opening of the heart, a letting down of the guard. And it works just like you describe: people are kinder, which to me suggests that there’s a lot of interactivity going on between humans below the level of conscious communication, and much of it has to do with openheartedness, whatever that really is.

Cecilia May 26, 2020 at 2:40 am

I’ve started doing yoga every third morning before the rest of the family gets up. I’ve also started doing a little “thank you” practice at the end of the yoga, just to think about everything I am so incredibly grateful for… my family, my friends, my work… Two nights ago, we had a tough time with my teenage daughter. Yesterday morning, I thought about how much I loved her and was so grateful for her being my daughter. All day yesterday, she was laughing and joking – a huge change. Did that come from a microscopic change in my attitude? Who knows, but I’m certainly going to keep doing it… Thanks again for your posts, and I’ve just realised I should include you in my gratitude practice.

David Cain May 26, 2020 at 9:13 am

Aw thanks Cecilia. I suppose it is fundamentally mysterious, but there’s no question in my mind that when you do goodwill/love practices, the people around us tend to become more open. In any case, we can always work on things from our own end.

Dave Hughes May 26, 2020 at 2:50 am

I think this is needed now more than ever. Not only is it harder to see when people are smiling (although you can see a smile in a person’s eyes too), but most people aren’t smiling.

We are now conditioned to steer clear of other people and maintain a safe distance. We (consciously or subconsiously) regard other people as possible transmitters of a terrible virus. We’re a little bit edgy about venturing out to a store in the first place. The tensions between mask-wearers and non-mask-wearers only adds to this sense of mistrust and detachment.

But these don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can project kindness and appreciate to other people even while wearing a mask and trying to stay 6 feet/2 meters away.

Thanks for another article that challenges us to be better humans.

David Cain May 26, 2020 at 9:16 am

Agreed. Covid masks have an interesting effect — they do obscure our faces and create a bit of tension that way, but they also symbolize a kind of solidarity. People are trying to keep each other safe. And we can always project goodwill no matter what is obscured visually.

Ron May 26, 2020 at 3:04 am

Really good, David. Of course, one may not be capable of simply turning on the warmth-and-appreciation switch in a given moment due to some difficult life circumstance impinging on them at that moment. But it’s true, often all it takes is waking up to the option of so doing and thereby escaping our thought prison to look around and see real people, not just objects.

David Cain May 26, 2020 at 9:22 am

Yes. Sometimes we’re just not on that wavelength. It is a skill we can strengthen, however. The “secret ally” practice I linked above is one way. Another way is traditional metta practice (aka loving-kindness meditation), where you generate feelings of goodwill by making a sequence of well-wishes for others. Both of them make this sort of goodwill more accessible, even when you feel really bad.

Nicola May 26, 2020 at 3:32 am

It’s long been said that people live up (or down) to our expectations. I think you’re right about our senses picking up very quickly on another’s intent toward us, developed in our long distant, murky past where a chance encounter required a split-second size up to determine whether the other was friend or foe. Unfortunately for women, projecting openness tends to result in men assuming a sexual/romantic interest, and that leads to unwanted interactions. Perhaps if this kind of openness was our default setting, that kind of misinterpretation would become less common.

David Cain May 26, 2020 at 9:31 am

Good point… unwanted interactions are definitely a consideration, and I suppose some of our default indifference/coolness to strangers stems from a reasonable desire to deter certain kinds of attention. So it’s definitely context-dependent. I think you’re right that part of the problem is that openness is not the default, so it feels exceptional, and some people will misinterpret that as an invitation. On the other hand it can also bring out the kinder and respectful sides of people.

carlos May 26, 2020 at 5:16 am

david , i have been reading yr notes now for awhile , i look forward to them it is true most people want to act in kind and just want to be appreciated and treated with respect and decency , keep up the great service you bring to the world

David Cain May 26, 2020 at 9:37 am

Hey thanks Carlos!

Rocky May 26, 2020 at 6:58 am

I read somewhere that if it was known that tomorrow our world would be obliterated by an asteroid, people would probably spend their final day telling others how much they loved each other. I say why wait? It’s a world eat world dog out there. Every little bit of kindness does enrich us all.
All you need is love.
Thanks again David

David Cain May 26, 2020 at 9:41 am

Why wait indeed! I guess we are afraid that we’ll regret being open, and sometimes we do. But it would be a shame to wait forever.

Nancy DeC. May 26, 2020 at 7:08 am

Hi, I enjoy reading your blog. This is one we need to brighten the challenges we face at this time. One thing I’ve noticed when shopping for groceries and being aware of distancing is that even though our mask cover half of our face, we can see eyes. I’ve become aware of Other people’s eyes smiling At me when I smile at them. So, our goodwill attitude can be seen if we look directly at others with good intentions, and pleasant feelings. I especially see this with the store clerks. When I ask them how they are today, they respond, sometimes with surprise. By the time they hand me my receipt, I see their eyes smiling. A good feeling for all of us. Makes the loneliness of isolation easier when I return home.

Thanks for all you share David. I look forward to reading your blog each time it comes in my email. Nancy

David Cain May 26, 2020 at 3:14 pm

I went grocery shopping today and tried to keep up the goodwill the whole time. One thing I noticed is that with my mask I made a point of speaking more clearly and engaging more obviously with eye contact, because I had so little “face” to work with :)

Beth Hawes May 26, 2020 at 7:19 am

I have long believed in the power of a smile! Smile at a stranger and most times they will smile back, and I cannot help but believe we both feel better. It’s such a small thing but has such power. It’s an act of giving and one that costs very little to the giver. I’ve sometimes thought that perhaps it might be the best thing to happen to a person that whole day! Perhaps the mask might blunt the full effect but when I smile I act accordingly and that’s a good thing for the world.

Brian May 26, 2020 at 7:31 am

As Dave said above, when we smile it shows in our eyes, not just our mouths, so don’t think there’s no point smiling behind your mask–there is! I’ve been going so far as to make friendly comments to people I pass: “You need wheels on that thing!” to someone carrying a big parcel, “Sound asleep!” to a mom pushing her baby in a carriage. Further to what you said, David, I think sometimes our default stance, especially in cities, is that a stranger is a threat until proved otherwise. Friendly comments disperse that concern in a flash.

John Khalil May 26, 2020 at 9:12 am

“In the end, my friend determined that it didn’t really matter, because people can somehow sense your attitude towards them, even without obvious visual cues like smiling. All that’s ever needed is genuine goodwill, even if it isn’t coming out of your face.”

^^^ This reminded me of the following quote, even though it’s not necessarily parallel:
“Do not offend others, even in your thoughts.”
—Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

Christy May 26, 2020 at 9:14 am

So enjoyable to read, just enough, to the point, entertaining, informative and heartfelt. Thank you for a great reminder, it is as you say.

Mike Miller May 26, 2020 at 9:46 am

When I moved to Chicago (where I now live), I found that I would be very wary of everyone, no matter how benign they looked or were acting towards me. This was particularly apparent on the train, as I huddled and had a watchful eye towards my fellow passengers.

Over time I became more accustomed to being around more people and I generally disregarded anyone who was acting normal or quiet. There were, of course, some people who were…less so. But the thing that really helped me open my heart to a lot of people was to envision them as children. Even the most bedraggled, sad looking person, started life as a smiling happy child, at some point. Many of them had been through a lot and that generally made me sad instead of fearful, but also helped to humanize that person. Imagine you can wind back the clock and you start to see our common humanity in all of us.

This didn’t quite lead to the same results as you mentioned (“The people I encounter seem to be friendlier and more upbeat than usual. More people say hi as they pass, more spontaneous exchanges happen, and more dogs want me to pet them.”), but it does lead to a softened heart and a cheerier outlook from me.

David Cain May 26, 2020 at 3:38 pm

In Richard Carlson’s book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, he recommends doing exactly that — picturing people as babies, and also as 100-year-olds. It really helps you see that a person is more that just their current behavior. I read that book on a bus 20 years ago and I still think of it almost every time I ride the bus.

Priya May 26, 2020 at 10:02 am

Hi David, another first-time commenter here. I have come across you through ChooseFI and MadFientist, and we also have a close friend in common. Her name starts with K and she could be the person you mention in this post. She’s my travel buddy and every time I’ve taken a trip with her, her warmth and friendliness motivate me to say smile and say hi to strangers when I get home. I just started a blog on happiness (cultivatingmorehappiness.com) and your site is such an inspiration! I’m hoping to come visit K sometime when this pandemic is behind us and hope to meet you then as well!

David Cain May 26, 2020 at 3:47 pm

Hi Priya. This was actually a different friend, but K is really good at this. Her life-loving attitude towards strangers and new places is a big inspiration to me. I’m sure you know what I mean. If you come to Winnipeg we will have to meet!

vely z May 26, 2020 at 10:44 am

So good and insightful! yes, I think we all grossly underestimate our 6th sense and also our own power to project good energy and good vibes. The masks have been an amazing social experiment that way, it’s sort of like therapy, like it forces you to dig in and see what you really mean and what you really think when you are out there mingling with the rest of the masked humans.

Catrina May 26, 2020 at 10:51 am

Now I want to go out and experiment being intentionally appreciative and open-hearted with others.
I’m sure I’ll be able to replicate your discovery.
Thank you for this post!

Jim May 26, 2020 at 12:04 pm

Great post.
I like how many of your strategies are just minor tweaks.
Simple, do-able action items.
“I just soften internally, and try to regard passers-by as a kind of pleasant company, rather than irrelevant strangers.”

David Cain May 26, 2020 at 3:51 pm

Thanks Jim. It really is a simple “move” — just a little inner shift from the default.

Janet May 26, 2020 at 12:11 pm

David, I have loved your posts for a long time and find this one especially pertinent to what I’ve also been feeling. I’d like to share this the next time I write. All good wishes to you, Janet

David Cain May 26, 2020 at 3:51 pm

Thanks so much Janet. It’s a good time to experiment with our more subtle human powers.

CHARLES May 26, 2020 at 3:29 pm

Smiles come through the eyes as much as by the mouth…keep ‘smiling’

As for our preoccupation with the monetary economy, Arthur Miller put it well:
“Don’t be seduced into thinking that that which does not make a profit is” without value.”

Rama Ramakrishnan May 26, 2020 at 7:12 pm

Wonderful and actionable wisdom, thanks for writing. I practice your “secret ally” advice whenever I remember (which, alas, is not as often as I would like) and have found it to be magical.

Julian May 27, 2020 at 4:00 am

Dear David, thank you for sharing!

I have to say that it is eye-opening and refreshing to hear that kindness does not only need to be expressed in great acts of charity or sacrifice (although those are undoubtedly fantastic). Rather, I am edified by the idea that you shared – that kindness is powerful even in small quantities and when it is extended to everyone we meet. A little goes a long way in this case and there we could all use a little more kindness in our lives! Cheers!

Kevin May 27, 2020 at 5:53 am

Our company now requires wearing a mask while interacting with customers. When they told us people “could still see us smiling through our eyes,” I blew it off. But I tried it anyway, and just as you note, it works.

Melanie Holley May 27, 2020 at 8:35 am

The last time I was out, a lady at the door of the grocery store was using a disinfectant wipe on the handle of her shopping cart. She was right there, at the door, so I hesitated as I didn’t want to seem rude, just going past her to enter the store. She said “I’m smiling behind my mask.” Which made me smile, too. It’s something I have been conscious of- how often I am smiling at others behind my own mask. And I just hoped that my eyes show that I am smiling. I went back and read your Secret Ally post and am resolved to try it myself. Practicing intentional openheartedness is a much better use of my time than grumbling inwardly about the assumed thoughtlessness of others. I hope I am given the benefit of the doubt, so I need to do unto others…Anyway, thank you.

David Cain May 27, 2020 at 9:17 am

Part of the power of the Secret Ally practice, and other inner goodwill practices is exactly that: it often replaces grumbling, judging, or other forms of ill-will. And the first thing you learn is that it feels better and is just a better way to operate internally when you’re out in public.

Linda M Shaw May 27, 2020 at 10:18 am

David, I am awed by your insight. I have found my usual ways of smiling at people and even communicating covered by the mask is difficult. Sometimes I feel I am over exaggerating my eyes strangely. Then I thought, it doesn’t matter, connection is just that, assuming it is a positive thing. Thanks for pointing out the little things, which are big things. Linda

Kaila June 2, 2020 at 4:47 pm

I have also noticed this while wearing a face mask but have also noticed something else – I am much more deliberate with my eye contact. I make sure my smile reaches my eyes, look directly at the person ringing up my groceries, and say “Hello!”

LanChi Pham June 10, 2020 at 11:14 am

I learned about a similar concept from my mentor when I was studying social work. She taught me about subconscious cues and how someone can pick up on other people’s subconscious cues without any verbal exchange or direct physical interaction. She gave a me a great example of when she was learning counseling and she herself had a counseling mentor. She told her mentor that the only group of people she could never work with were sexual abusers, but she had never said this to any of her clients. Her mentor told her that she didn’t need to tell her clients this; they could sense her subconscious cues about it. This was an epiphany for my mentor and she spent some time reflecting on this. The very next day, one of her clients revealed to her that he had been a sexual abuser. He said that he never felt that it was okay to tell her this before, but somehow, he now felt like she would be receptive to this information. Sometimes, I think of this story when I’m interacting with others. I remind myself that whatever I feel and believe and think is projected to the outside world, whether I realize it or not.

David Cain June 10, 2020 at 5:27 pm

That is really interesting. It’s hard to know what sort of exchange is actually happening, but there’s definitely something going on. I wonder about the effect of all the bad/suspicious vibes I’ve given off in my life because I was nervous or uncomfortable. I’m trying to make up for that :)

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