There are guys you absolutely know are going to be trouble the minute you spot them, and the first person I met in Naples, Italy was one of them.
Rich and I had been in town just ten minutes, at the tail end of a three-month railway journey some years ago, and already I had a case of the heebie-jeebies. For a start, the train station — said to be a transportation hub serving 50 million people a year — was totally deserted. Pushing through fly-specked glass doors to the street, I saw nothing but shuttered shops, overflowing garbage bins, and empty potato chip packets blowing past like tumbleweed.
“What do you figure?” I said. “A nuclear holocaust while we were on the train? We’re the only people left alive on the planet?”
“There’s somebody.” Up ahead three teenage boys loitered by the entrance to a dark pedestrian tunnel, the kind moviegoers instantly recognize as shorthand for “mugging about to happen.”
“Shall we just throw them our wallets and beat ourselves up to save everybody some time?” I asked.
A few ordinary-looking adults were heading into the tunnel, so we followed. The cavernous walls were decorated with eye-popping graffiti. The ground was littered with broken glass, rotting food, fragments of furniture, and blobs of what appeared to be radioactive waste.
“Whatever you do, don’t trip and fall in here,” I advised.
We emerged into a busy intersection thronged with Vespas and hurrying locals whose appearance ranged from scruffy to scurrilous. A suave voice behind me said, in English, “Where are you trying to get to?”
I turned to find a handsome, silver-haired stranger, impeccably dressed and oozing charm. His smile said, “Trust me!” so irresistibly I naturally assumed he was one of the city’s notorious scam artists. As I drew breath to tell him to get lost, Rich was already showing him the address of our lodgings. I shot my husband a have-you-lost-your-mind look, but he was too deep in consultation with our new best friend to notice.
As the stranger explained we’d gotten off the train too soon and showed us the stop we needed, I realized that whatever his regular line of work (fleecing old ladies, corrupting politicians, setting up Ponzi schemes) that day this gentleman was a Good Samaritan.
(And before I go any further, I just want to add that after that rough beginning, we fell in love with Naples' high-octane energy and non-conformist spirit. As the pictures below show, it's never dull.)
As we thanked our Good Samaritan, I reflected, not for the first time, on the kindness of strangers. People around the world have given us directions, suggested great coffee houses, advised us about neighborhoods to avoid, taken us to their hairdressers, and pointed us towards the most memorable bars in the vicinity. Maybe they’re partly motivated by civic pride or amused pity for a couple of hapless know-nothings, but mostly I think people just like being helpful.
And now science is demonstrating that engaging in even brief moments of kindness can improve the health and wellbeing of both parties.
This came as a huge surprise to one man assigned to study the subject: New Jersey intensive care physician Dr. Stephen Trzeciak, a hard-science research nerd who placed no faith in all this touchy-feely stuff. Then his new boss, Dr. Anthony Mazzarelli, asked him to find a cure for the rampant burnout among the medical staff and explore whether treating patients with both medicine and compassion could enhance the health of patients and doctors. At this point in the story, I always imagine Trzeciak rolling his eyes; in the book they subsequently wrote together, Compassionomics, he recalls he “thought Mazzarelli was crazy. Literally crazy.”
Crazy or not, Mazzarelli was his boss, so Trzeciak got to work studying the data in 1000 abstracts and 250 research studies. He assumed they’d show that compassion might be nice, or even a moral imperative, but couldn’t possibly make any medical difference. To his astonishment, he was dead wrong. Science demonstrated, over and over, that when health care providers act with ordinary human kindness not only do patient outcomes improve, but the medical professionals’ mental health gets a boost and their burnout rate is considerably less.
“Expressing empathy produces physiological effects that calm us in the moment and strengthen our long-term sustainability,” reports Harvard Business Review, citing studies on such topics as leadership and burnout. “It evokes responses in our body that arouse the (good) parasympathetic nervous system, and it reverses the effects of the stress response brought on by the (bad) sympathetic nervous system. So not only do others benefit from our empathy, but we benefit, too.”
Among the many examples Trzeciak and Mazzarelli cite is a Johns Hopkins study of 1700 HIV patients. It turns out those who believed their doctor knew them as a person were 33% more likely to adhere properly to therapy and — more startlingly — had 20% higher odds of having no detectible virus in their blood.
Despite ample proof of its benefits, 56% of physicians say they don’t have time for compassion. So Johns Hopkins researchers did a trial with cancer patients that showed outcomes improved significantly when doctors spoke from this simple script:
At the start: “I know this is a tough experience to go through. And I want you to know that I’m here with you. Some of the things I say to you today may be difficult to understand, so I want you to feel comfortable in stopping me if something I say is confusing or doesn’t make sense. We are here together, and we will go through this together.”
At the end: “I know this is a tough time for you and I want to emphasize again that we are in this together. I will be with you each step along the way.”
Time required: 40 seconds
Thanks to the pandemic, practically every medical professional on the planet is experiencing unprecedented levels of stress. In a recent US study “responses collected from the 1,119 healthcare workers surveyed indicated they're stressed out and stretched too thin: 93% were experiencing stress, 86% reported experiencing anxiety, 77% reported frustration, 76% reported exhaustion and burnout, and 75% said they were overwhelmed.”
Of course, medical professionals aren’t the only ones suffering these days. Who among us isn’t stressed, anxious, frustrated, exhausted, and burned out? Is anybody feeling serene, sleeping soundly every night, and finding it easy to stay focused on … what was I saying?
Maybe it’s time to start looking at every interaction — whether it’s with those closest to us, our doctor, or someone we’ve just met on the street — as an opportunity to be a Good Samaritan. Most of us can spare 40 seconds to share a few friendly words, especially with those who seem particularly lost, frazzled, or freaked out. “There’s no such thing as a small act of kindness,” says Dilbert’s creator, Scott Adams. “Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.” Every time we toss a little compassion out into the world, we contribute to the ripples that will spread far and wide; eventually, if we're lucky, they'll make their way back to us.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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