Emiliana Simon-Thomas answers the question:

What is the nicest thing a non-family member has ever done for you?


This is such a great question, and as most other people might also struggle with, I had a hard time coming up with one example. It was hard because I didn't want to choose one. There's so many incredible people who have done nice things for me, and I didn't want one person to feel like maybe their nice thing was not as nice as someone else's nice thing. So I'll start with just being grateful and acknowledging the fact that so many people who I'm not related to biologically have done really wonderful things to help me be the person who I am and live as delightfully and comfortably as I do.

That said, I'm not going to chicken out of the question. The story that came to mind most powerfully is one that comes from my high school years. I grew up in Berkeley, California. I'm the second of five siblings, so I had an older brother, two younger brothers, and a younger sister. I'm 11 years older than my younger sister. So when I was in high school, I had an older brother who was ahead of me in high school. He was very cool and popular. I was kind of middle of the road. And then I had three younger siblings who were just wild and crazy. And our house was somewhat chaotic and active and exciting. I rode my bicycle to school every morning. It was probably a 12-minute ride, and I went along a street in Berkeley called Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue.

Every morning, I passed a house on a corner of this pretty busy street, where an elderly African-American man named Mr. Charles would stand out on the corner with gardening gloves on and say wonderful things to anyone and everyone who was driving by, and to me riding by on my bicycle. He would say, at the simplest, "Have a good day." He'd be waving, smiling. If he caught your eye, as he often did with me, he would say, "You're beautiful, keep smiling. Have a good day." All kinds of just really heartwarming, genuine... I don't know, chill-arousing, sweet things that really shifted my mindset from that of a kind of sulky teenager who maybe felt like I wasn't getting enough attention and wished that someone had driven me to school. Just shifted my perspective. Really changed how I was thinking.

He had no sort of reason to be doing this other than just a genuine desire to contribute to people's good feelings on a day-to-day basis. So, I remember that. I remember Mr. Charles, and I really feel like he served this kind of uplifting and inspiring force in my life. And it's something I remember as a person myself growing up in the world, and imagining what I can do to improve the quality of anyone's day. Something as simple as just smiling and looking them in the eye and suggesting or offering them the opportunity or the possibility of thinking about their day as something wonderful and delightful. 

To his credit, Mr. Charles is also acknowledged by the city of Berkeley now. The park that’s right across the street from where he used to stand out on the corner and wave is dedicated to him. He used to be a mail carrier, and the story was that he really appreciated and enjoyed his daily interactions, where he got to speak with people when he was giving them their mail. And once he stopped working, he just felt like the only way to have that kind of connection with all kinds of people in the community he lived in was to stand out on the corner and wave and smile, and urge people to think positive and be optimistic.

So yeah, I'm going to say that Mr. Charles, he was the one who did this incredible nice thing for me that has impacted my life in the long run.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas is the Science Director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. A Berkeley native, she earned her PhD in Psychology studying how emotional and cognitive processes interact in the brain to shape decisions and behavior. During her post-doc, Emiliana studied the biological correlates and social functions of pro-social emotions like compassion, gratitude, and awe. 

She then served as Associate Director/Senior Scientist at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford, examining how compassion, both innate and learned, benefits health and wellbeing. At the GGSC, she oversees the student research fellowship program, runs key initiatives like Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude, and provides an expert scientific voice on the key roles that social connection, support, and belonging play in wellbeing to audiences worldwide. 

She also co-teaches The Science of Happiness, a BerkeleyX MOOC that has enrolled over 600,000 people from all over the world, in addition to the recently launched Science of Happiness at Work Professional Certificate Series. She regularly lectures on the biological underpinnings of social connection, as well as empirically supported approaches to improving interpersonal dynamics — like practicing mindfulness, and increasing compassion, gratitude, and generosity. 

Alongside her academic and popular writing, Emiliana recently co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, a transdisciplinary compendium of articles from world-class researchers. Emiliana's work leverages leading-edge scientific insights to help people live better lives individually, in relationship with others, within organizations and communities, and society-wide.

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This article appears in: 2019 Catalyst, Issue 14: The Reuniting Science & Spirituality Summit