Airport altruism: chasing happiness on the way to somewhere else

by Charles Montgomery on

I have to thank Paul Zak for inspiring my latest piece in enRoute Magazine. Paul is the neuroscientist whose book, The Moral Molecule explores the incredible role that the hormone oxytocin plays in human behaviour. Its lesson is straightforward: our brains reward us for being nice to other people.

As I explain in the story, Paul is not a shy guy. He lives the lessons of his science, which means that even when flying, he’ll find reasons to hug strangers and soak up the resulting oxytocin benefits.

Not all of are quite so forward. I had to screw up a lot of courage to offer help to total strangers in my travels. Meanwhile, as we all know, it can take even more courage to ask for help. But if Paul’s science is correct, when you give other people the opportunity to help you, you are also giving them the chance to benefit from the feel-good glow of the travelling altruist.

My editors at enRoute smartly cut the fat out of my story. My original ending detailed my own challenging attempt to ask for help at the airport and then on the Metro in Mexico City. Here is that ending, in all its unedited glory:

…Still, I began to wonder: If, as they say, it is better to give than to receive, then a truly altruistic traveler would flip the kindness intervention completely, and offer someone else the opportunity to be nice.

 A few months ago I landed at Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City. I happened to be recovering from knee surgery at the time. In other words, this was my chance.

I exaggerated my limp as I made my way from baggage claim to customs, dragging my carry-on bag like a robin with a broken wing. This produced not a single offer of help. I collected my suitcase and ignored the rows of taxis waiting outside—it would hardly be altruism if I paid someone to assist me, would it? I made my way along a neon-lit promenade towards the Terminales Metro Station, still limping, but now sending a pained expression to anyone who caught my eye. Still no offers.

It was more than a little frustrating. Here I was, ready to facilitate a huge hit of happiness, and not only was nobody taking the bait, but my knee was really starting to throb.

 Design came to the rescue. The metro station featured not a single escalator, just staircase after punishing staircase. By the time I had hauled my bags down to the station’s turnstiles, I was red-faced, breathless and quite honestly suffering, and legitimately in need of help. I stood at the bottom of the next staircase, letting my pain pour through my expression, and wondering why the hell I hadn’t just taken a cab.

An ancient woman with a leathery face and a walking cane offered me a sympathetic gaze. I let her pass. A gaggle of teenage punks with super-sized Mohawks charged past. Too fast. Everyone else seemed in such a hurry.

Then a gentle-looking Mexican couple appeared amid the throngs. There was a tenderness to them, but it was directed at their two young children. I could not get eye contact. They needed encouragement.

 “Ayúdame!” I wailed as they passed. “Please, I need help!”

 It took a few seconds. Then, without a blink, the man handed his son over to his wife, ripped my suitcase from my hands and hoisted it over his shoulder. I followed him up the stairs, limping for real.

“You are very kind,” I said as we shuffled onto the next train.

“Most people are very kind,” he replied as he pushed my suitcase towards me. “You just have to ask.”

As we took our seats, the man looked to his wife and his children, and they looked to him, and then we all looked to each other, and after a minute or so we were all smiling collectively, as though we had shared a happy secret. The oxytocin was flowing. Oh, yes. I felt grand. I was sure that they felt even grander. I would not have minded taking some credit.

“Let me tell you about the science of happiness,” I said.

But now the train had stopped, the doors had slid open, and my new friends were already on their feet. I waved through the window as they disappeared into the crowd, and I was again surrounded by strangers. They struck me as just my kind of people.