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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The road to happiness is paved with good intentions

When someone bumps into you in the hallway, what's your reaction? If they cut you off in traffic or track mud past your desk, do you decry their inattention, their sloppiness, the difficulty they create for you? Is everyone out to get you? Is every difficulty an insult?

Or do you assume they made an error -- with no evil in their hearts, no intention to cause you pain?

A recent study found that pain hurt less, candy tasted better, and a massage was more satisfying when the subject believed the person providing whichever stimulus had good intentions. Or, in research terms, "whether physical experience is influenced by the interpersonal context in which stimuli occur."

The results confirm that good intentions—even misguided ones—can sooth pain, increase pleasure, and make things taste better. More broadly, these studies suggest that basic physical experience depends upon how we perceive the minds of others. (study author Kurt Gray, University of College Park, Maryland)

From a Buddhist perspective, this makes perfect sense. Rather than telling ourselves a story about how others wish us harm, intentionally or not, or how we're the most unlucky person in the universe or however we explain our own version of Murphy's Law, we see what is. Maybe we even try to cultivate the good and cast interactions in a positive light.

Maybe the store cashier really wants you to have a good day. I really want them to have a pleasant shift. The person who asks you to sign a petition in support of a cause -- most likely they really care about it. It matters to them, and they think your support matters. They aren't doing it to annoy you. Really.

For a start, see if you can catch the thought each interaction brings. The phone rings. Is it a bother? A potential connection? An opportunity? Is there a story behind your reaction?

You can give it a happy ending.