05/14/2012 04:43 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

Hitchhiking as a Moral Molecule

According to a recent article by Paul J. Zak in the Wall Street Journal, people do want to be kind. All one has to do "to trigger this moral molecule is give someone a sign of trust" -- just like I do, every time I stand by the side of a road with my thumb out hoping someone will pick me up.

Years back, on a wintry January afternoon after my husband had returned to New York leaving me alone in rural Ireland, I had run out of cat food and milk and needed a lift to town.

Screwing my courage to the sticking point, I wrote BANTRY on a piece of cardboard, walked down our laneway, stood under an old tree, plastered on a beckoning smile and hoped for the best. The best happened.

Fifteen years on, I've come to believe that hitching is a transcendent pleasure available to everyone. What's really wonderful (like the old song says) is that it's free! By performing this ancient gesture, for surely the Celts hitched rides on horses, I am treating my savior at the wheel to a warm bath of the chemical elixir oxytocin.

According to Zak, every time a stranger reads my sign and stops, their level of oxytocin rises. By my innocent (though, some might say, foolish) expression of utmost trust, they have done a good deed and I've gotten to town. They feel good, I feel good, in a spiritual win-win way.

Like many New Yorkers, I don't drive, but it's not from lack of trying. Speed, fear and nutty instructors who want me to pray before getting behind the wheel, have taken the wind out of my sails. Yet, even if I eventually learn, I'd still hitch for the pure joy I get from it.

Zak claims in his new book The Moral Molecule that one can "tune oxytocin release [in one's self] by seeking exposure to people outside one's family or cultural and geographic 'tribes.'" This is exactly why I hitch.

Living in rural Ireland can be alienating. It's hard to connect in a car culture. People whiz back and forth, even for the short distance a New Yorker would walk. So I relish the chance to talk to a stranger for the 20 minutes it takes to drive me to town. Many drivers tell me that a spiffily dressed woman alone by the side of the road must be just that little bit special for her to trust a stranger not to do harm. Yet nearly everyone asks the same question.

"Has anything bad ever happened to ye?"

"No," I say, "barring my encounter with a Seventh-Day Adventist. The Bible on the dashboard let me know I was in for it. Poor guy kept at it and at it, asking will I accept Jesus as my personal savior. When I said no, he'd ask again. Hardly scary, just annoying that my accepting Jesus would mean so much to him."

A few years later a man and a woman stopped. Immediately, the man said he owed me an apology. Then I recognized him. Seems that day he'd been on his very first mission, and desperately wanted to get someone to accept Jesus.

Oxytocin can turn an ordinary drive into a therapy session. I can sense discord as soon as I enter a car. Many tell me that they're sad. Like the woman who visits her husband in the "home" every day -- a husband who no longer recognizes her. Or the vet with an old dog who shared the seat with me -- a dog he was about to put down. Or the salesman, and there have been many, who wonders would I go and have a drink with him.

People, just people needing love.

When we arrive in Bantry I always manage to find them a really good parking space. I seem to have developed a sixth sense for finding spaces on the square. Parking space found, my savior breathes a sigh of relief and we silently pause for a minute. Names are never exchanged, though when I get into the car I always say "I'm Alice."

Then I pat his or her arm.

"Bless you," I say, and walk away.

For more by Alice Carey, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.