Traffic: The kindness barometer | AspenTimes.com

Traffic: The kindness barometer

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

Every self-help seminar, lecture or book that touches on the pursuit of happiness seems to use traffic as an analogy for how to measure our personal patience and our tolerance levels for either acting out in frustration or offering up small acts of kindness. Snowmass Village is now being put to the test. Are we going to prove to one another that we are collectively kind, or will we fail, putting our worst foot forward this summer?

Perhaps it was the added hustle of Food & Wine, but Aspen has not felt particularly friendly recently. After forging through the crowded streets in an unsuccessful search for a peaceful park in which to picnic last weekend, I ended my outing to town by stalking a parking place at City Market — only to be elbowed through the packed aisles and finally ejected through the doorway with just half of my shopping list procured. Back into the parking lot, filled with irritable, honking drivers now stalking me, I felt sheepishly out of my element. It was enough to send me scurrying back to my little village as fast as traffic would allow.

The drive down Main Street left me feeling, as I often do, like either a chump for sitting in the right lane or a jerk for hurrying past on the left to then force a way into the merge madness at the Hickory House. For me, the “S” in “S-curves” could stand for that “sigh” of relief, the point where I can finally enjoy the nice, calm drive along Owl Creek Road back to — call it “Slowmass” if you want; I consider it the gentle side of the tracks. 

However, upon returning to our low-key village, sitting in an unfamiliar additional 20 minutes of traffic between the firehouse and Faraway Road was the real test.

If you do not travel to Aspen on a daily basis, you may take for granted the convenience of quickly driving up to the Snowmass Center, finding parking with ease, picking up your mail along with friendly smiles and grabbing your groceries, all while greeting and holding doors for your neighbors. At times it is pretty ideal, and during the offseason in particular, there is a genuine sense of community around the village hubs.

However, this summer’s traffic will now test our impulse to slip to the side of human “kind” that isn’t. People really look miserable, frowning and shaking their heads, exhausted, depleted, sitting and waiting — some even lose it altogether, pressing past on the shoulder, while others refuse to allow anyone to merge in from side streets.

It struck me sitting there — with time to think — here we are, in this beautiful, safe and stimulating place. Unhappy. I was reminded of a quote I recently saw about how we are 20 percent what happens to us and 80 percent how we choose to react, and I realized that I could easily allow the general sense of unhappiness and frustration to consume me.

While studying cultural anthropology, I spent five months abroad focusing on cross-cultural differences and found that there is a genetic propensity toward selfish behaviors. As a species, we took over the planet by adapting very quickly, and as a result we became inherently competitive and adaptively insatiable. However, despite our naturally self-serving instincts, human beings actually became the dominant species that we are today by working together to overcome obstacles and by sharing — in a collective way — our bounty.

In fact, regardless of the amount of material goods we may have, we will fail to flourish if we do not focus on the “kind” side of humankind. 

So why not be nice? It’s truly contagious. While irritability fosters frustration and unhappiness, kindness actually produces positive energy that manifests in happiness. There is genuine scientific evidence to prove this theory.

According to many of the Wanderlust speakers joining us in Snowmass later this month, when we are kind to others, our brains reward us. We have physical reactions such as the release of dopamine, the feel-good hormone, and serotonin with its calming effect, along with oxytocin, which encourages social bonding. Acts of kindness even help us to produce natural DHEA, which slows down the aging process. On the other hand, when we act out aggressively or in frustration, we produce many negative chemical reactions in our bodies, including a large increase in the stress hormone cortisone, which actually increases sugars in the bloodstream and puts our very health at risk.

For many trained kindness and happiness gurus, including those who will visit during Wanderlust, the traffic analogy is ripe for the metaphors of anger management. When we experience traffic, we are immersed in moments filled with opportunities to either display disdain or share in collective acts of kindness, to either become angry and produce a ripple of negativity or enjoy the benefits of mutually accepting and giving small acts of kindness — the happy maker, those moments that help us to thrive as a species.

Happiness and kindness, both positive emotions, feed on each other proportionally — more of one is proven equal to the amount of the other. I recall a time when if a car horn sounded the whole town stopped to see what could have possibly caused such a reaction.

This summer I encourage everyone sitting in traffic to both accept it and make the most of it. After all, it offers an opportunity to improve your state of happiness and overall health. Good deeds do in fact produce happiness, while road rage will shorten your life expectancy. The choice is yours.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind. After all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at brittag@ ymail.com.


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