On Father's Day 2017, a woman paying for her meal at a McDonald's drive-up window in Scottsburg, Indiana, told the cashier that she'd also like to buy the meals of the man with four children in the van behind her. "Tell him 'Happy Father's Day,' " she told the salesclerk.
Her small act of kindness was soon regenerated 167 times, with each customer offering to pay for the subsequent person's order. The story made national headlines, but Daniel Fessler wasn't surprised.
The University of California anthropology professor has spent the past several years studying the positive effects of kindness, and he is now the inaugural director of an academy devoted to the subject.
"The very fact that we can live cheek and jowl next to each other is remarkable in itself," he said. "With the world more connected than ever before, kindness has never been more important."
The Bedari Kindness Institute opened last month in a UCLA social sciences building with a $20 million gift from the Bedari Foundation to fund research on what provokes kindness and how that can empower everyday people. It will also offer classes and workshops on the topic.
Research has already been done at UCLA about how kindness can reduce heart disease, depression and a person's risk for developing cancer, said Darnell Hunt, dean of the university's social sciences division and administrator of the new program. Researchers have begun to study the effects of kindness on depressed students.
Another project underway is studying why some people choose to risk their lives to save others during genocide while their friends and neighbors do not.
"What are the mechanisms that determine whether somebody is going to be kind or not?" Hunt asked. "Who are these people, and what motivated them to take action?"
He added that "kindness is at the core of humans' ability to cooperate with one another."
The institute is being funded by Manhattan philanthropists Matthew Harris and his wife, Jennifer, who named the research facility Bedari after the first syllables of the names of their children: Beckett, Dakota and Riley.
Matthew Harris said he was inspired to help start the institute after awakening one morning in his New York City home and realizing that negative thoughts he was having about himself were beginning to affect his relationships with family and friends, he said.
"Whether it's being judgmental, holding yourself to a higher standard or insisting on perfection — all the ways I lived my life — it became my experience that if you're not kind and compassionate to yourself, it's hard to do the same for others," said Harris. "I simply didn't want to live my life like that anymore."
Harris, who is a founder of Manhattan's Global Infrastructure Partners, an equity firm that focuses on areas such as energy and waste, conferred with his wife and several educators at UCLA (his 1984 alma mater) and came up with a plan for the kindness academy.
Fessler, the academy's director, is one of several professors working with the institute. He recently finished a study on whether kindness can evoke an emotional response that becomes contagious. Answer: yes.
The anthropology professor and his research volunteers randomly selected about 8,000 people in Los Angeles to earn $5 by watching a light video of a person doing backflips or an emotional video of a young man performing kind acts for strangers.
At the end of each viewing (the video each person watched was decided by a coin toss), people were given the option of donating their $5 or any other amount they desired to a local children's hospital, said Fessler.
"They put whatever they wanted in a padded envelope while the researcher turned her back, and then the envelope was given to another researcher who recorded it and forwarded it to the hospital," he said.
Participants who were shown the video featuring kind acts were more generous with their donations, Fessler observed.
"So when people are exposed to an emotional experience of kindness, they're more likely to respond in kind," he said. "Can we predict who will have this or not? Yes, we can. But it depends on what kind of expectations they have about other people."
A cynical person who watches the kindness video and thinks the do-gooder is either a sucker or is out to exploit people, isn't as likely to pay it forward than a person who comes away thinking that their community is full of good people, said Fessler.
"When people get this emotional boost, they become more pro-social," he said. "The people we studied used words like 'uplifted,' 'moved' and 'tears in my eyes' to describe how they felt internally. One person told me, 'I feel like hugging a puppy.' "
Fessler likes to compare his experiment to the real-life story of those 167 people who paid for each other's meals at McDonald's.
"Each individual's act spurred somebody else to engage in pro-social behavior," he said. "If people are interacting with each other again and again, then theoretically, that can lift the community to the point where people are more cooperative with one another."
At a time when people trade political barbs with strangers online and some choose to spend hours each day in isolation with their phones, kindness has never been more needed, he said. Fessler said he spent years working in Indonesia and learned a saying: "There is no ivory which is not cracked."
"It's a metaphor for 'we are all imperfect,' " he said. "For any of us to say, 'My way is the right way and I have the only right values' is to fail to recognize that all of us can be kinder and more tolerant. We're all in the same lifeboat together."