I Broke My Foot, and Everything Changed

In early 2015, I broke my foot in New York City. Like most Type A personalities, rather than going to the doctor, I continued the day’s meetings. People could see me limping a bit but mostly paid no attention. When I told a few people on my team what happened, we all largely laughed it off.

By the next morning, my foot was the size of one of Magic Johnson’s toes so I figured it was time to go see a doctor. Sure enough, my foot was broken and needed a cast for 8 weeks. The doctor fitted me and sent me on my way.

I hobbled outside on crutches and hailed a cab, which stopped a few feet in front of me. Out of nowhere someone ran up and started yelling at the cabbie “back the hell up, can’t you see he’s injured.” The man held the door open for me and wished me well. As I arrived at my destination, a woman waiting on the side of the road pulled my crutches out of the cab and shut the door behind me; another stranger opened the door to the building.

Not one to ask for help, I found all of this a bit odd, especially in New York. When I got to my meeting, things went from strange to absurd. People I have worked with for years treated me differently; people I hardly knew suddenly became close friends. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in my foot. People wanted to help, make sure I wasn’t in pain, and learn what happened.

Every time I leave New York City, I stop at the same pizza stand and come across the same emotionless woman at the register. I have a running joke with my colleagues about trying to get her to crack a smile, a task at which I’ve never succeeded. But this time, she was animated and excited to see me, and she even snuck me an extra slice! I asked her if she remembered me as a regular and she said yes. So I asked why she was being so nice today, after all these years. She responded with a wide, caring smile, “Because now you are hurt.”

I was asked no less than four times if I wanted a wheelchair at the airport. A stranger grabbed my bag and carried it to my gate (yes, my first thought was she was stealing it–it is NYC after all). I was even “healed” by an evangelist, who grabbed my hand tight, looked into my eyes, and said something I couldn’t understand (no, it didn’t work). As I boarded the plane, a flight attendant who I’ve seen 100 times before called me by name for the first time ever and walked me to my seat.

As the plane took off, I sat in my seat and started reflecting on everyone who had gone out of their way to help me. I saw a different side of strangers and colleagues alike. They seemed genuinely happier. We all know that helping others is rewarding, but seeing that in action–from the other side–is quite an experience.

It didn’t surprise me that people were nice to me. It is the way we all act around others in need. That is human nature. What I found thought-provoking and a little disturbing is that we don’t act like this all the time to all people. Neuroscientists have found that even the smallest act of altruism lights up pleasure centers in the midbrain, the same area that lights up during eating, sex, or depositing money into your bank. Another area that lights up when helping others is the subgenual region, which contains receptors for oxytocin, a social bonding hormone. Oxytocin makes us feel good and encourages social bonds. It’s also what’s released when we merely gaze upon a baby.

We are hard-wired to take care of those who need it, and doing so makes us indisputably happier. But on a daily basis, most of us, especially in the corporate world, are surrounded by people who don’t necessarily need help. We have little reason to go into caretaker mode, yet doing so would undoubtedly brighten the grumpiest co-workers smile. That’s oxytocin in action. A 41-year-old CEO is not nearly as adorable as a newborn, but my broken foot gave those around me an opportunity to be altruistic, resulting in the release of the same feel-good chemicals.

The optimist in me can’t help but wonder how our workplaces would be brighter if we could treat others with the same kindness we save for a baby or a disabled person? If we held the door open for a (perfectly capable) co-worker, or engaged in a random act of kindness for a (fully grown) colleague, would we increase our overall level of happiness? I think the answer is yes.

We should remember that all people are in need to some extent all the time. We would be happier as individuals, and the world would be a happier place, if we just treated each other with a bit more kindness, a bit more often.

Jeff Stibel
About the author: 

 Jeff Stibel is the Vice Chairman of Dun and Bradstreet.  He was the Chairman, President and CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. before the company was sold to D&B.  Jeff serves on Boards at Autobytel, the University of Southern California, Tufts University and Brown University.  Before his current assignment, Mr. Stibel worked in President, CEO and Chairman roles at Web.com and true[X].  In addition to holding a Master’s Degree in Brain Sciences from Brown University, Jeff has been published by McMillan and Harvard Business Press. Follow him on Twitter.