THE BLOG
12/15/2014 12:29 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

A Stop-the-Presses Kind of Moment

Compassionate Eye Foundation/Steven Errico via Getty Images

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." --Plato

Are human beings rotten to the core? Have we become so hardened, so cynical, that we can only expect the worst of our fellow man? It certainly seems that way when a simple act of kindness, a display of selflessness, a hug, can cause such a ruckus.

The hug made international news. It went viral on social media. And now, the young man who chose to deliver a message of encouragement rather than wallow in the agony of his own defeat has just been honored with the Stan Musial Award for sportsmanship.

They give awards for that? For human decency?

Don't get me wrong. Malik Stewart surely deserves the recognition. In March, the 120-pound wrestler had just lost the biggest match of his life at the Minnesota state high school championships in St. Paul. Not only had he lost the match, it took Mitchell McKee all of 88 seconds to pin Stewart and crush his dream of a state title. Months of pain and sweat and commitment. Over. In less than a minute and a half.

But then Stewart did a curious thing. He didn't storm off the mat in anger or embarrassment, as so many athletes would after a loss of such magnitude. Instead, the 16-year-old jogged to McKee's father, Steve, who has been battling an incurable form of cancer. Embracing the man, Stewart told him to stay strong. The crowd erupted.

"I just did it straight from the heart," Stewart told Kare11 after the match. His own father had died of a heart attack when Stewart was 7.

"I know if [my dad] was there to see me win a state title, he'd be proud. I felt really good for both of them, that [Steve McKee] could witness his son doing that."

Another display of kindness that made news this year was the seemingly trivial act of tying a shoelace. A Florida grocery store clerk named Gage Boucher stopped to help an older man who was struggling to tie his shoes. A shopper snapped a picture of this random act of kindness, uploaded the image to Facebook and the story went viral. The impromptu photographer said he got so emotional while trying to capture the image that he began to fumble with his camera and feared he would miss the shot. Afterward, Boucher, puzzled by the attention, told a reporter that people should just "start being kind."

Of course, as a psychologist whose approach is grounded in positive psychology, I welcome the frenzy over kindness. We as a band of human beings are not cruel -- we are simply wired to pay more attention to brutishness than compassion. In an academic article famously titled "Bad Is Stronger Than Good," Roy Baumeister and three of his colleagues assert that it is "evolutionarily adaptive" for bad to be stronger than good. Throughout our evolutionary history, they write, "organisms that were better attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased probability of passing along their genes." Other research shows that our brains light up more with unhappy faces than happy faces and that we remember bad experiences more than good.

So knowing that our brains are wired to latch onto the bad, when we observe good stuff we are amazed. Even the simplest acts give us a warm feeling. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says that when we witness these acts of moral beauty, we experience elation, a feeling of being lifted up. Seeing the exhibition of kindness, even among animals, increases our feelings of compassion. In turn, we become more likely to "pay it forward" by helping others. A study by James Fowler of UC San Diego and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, shows that benevolence can spread through social networks like the flu. As a result, they write, "each person in a network can influence dozens or even hundreds of people, some of whom he or she does not know and has not met."

Kindness also has myriad positive side effects for the giver, such as more fulfilling relationships, improved immune system function and enhanced overall well-being.

And while you're at it, be kind to yourself. By having a caring attitude toward ourselves, we become more resilient and better equipped to reach out to others. So watch your self-talk, encourage yourself and forgive yourself.

Remember, kindness is contagious. Whether you volunteer, donate to charity or just give a hug and encouraging words to someone you know is struggling, spread some.

In short, we should all strive to find the Malik Stewart in each of us.

Jason Powers, M.D., is chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehab and the Right Step network of addiction treatment centers in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, a scientifically validated approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives upon achieving sobriety.