By: Abdulrehman Yusuf Abdulrehman*
Simplicity is golden. The simplicity of hadith regarding kindness towards our brothers and sisters usually speaks for itself, as it is rarely argued that kindness is unfruitful. As much as kindness has become ingrained within Muslims as a personal trait, we sometimes overlook the impact our kindness can have on others. In a hadith related by both Bukhari and Muslim, Abu Hurairah, radiallahu anh, narrated that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him), said, “A good word serves as charity.” In similar versions of hadith related by Muslim, Abu Dharr reports, in response to questions of charity, the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) stated that “every good act is an act of charity”, and that “even a smile toward your brother, is a charitable act”. These hadith suggest acts of kindness extend from simply adorning our personalities, to becoming a charitable commodity to others.
Though many may already be aware of the psychological effects of kind acts, we can explore briefly, as a reminder, exactly how a smile can be considered charity. Regardless of which theoretical perspective one assumes in psychology, putting aside the argument for genetic influences on mental health, most psychologists would agree that our experiences determine who we become. Be it the behavioral perspective (that suggests we are behaviorally conditioned to become a certain way), the cognitive perspective (which argues our thoughts are shaped through our experiences), or psychodynamic outlook (whereby childhood experiences greatly influence our adult lives and personalities), the component of life experience cannot easily be removed from the equation. Though children are particularly vulnerable to the shaping effect early life experiences have, adults’ personalities, despite popular belief, are also molded by their continued experiences in life.
If our life experience is negative, it is likely that we ourselves will develop unhealthy personalities. If the thoughts and actions of those around us are negative, our self-perceptions can become negative. If they are positive then our self-perceptions become positive. In this manner, how others respond to us, in what they say and do, will affect our self-perceptions, or in other words, our self-esteem. In an extreme example, a person surrounded by abusive individuals would likely develop low self-worth and may become depressed or act out aggressively. When the life experiences of criminals are examined, it is noted that their life experiences, and more importantly the way others have acted towards them have been largely negative. It is important to note that this statement does not excuse criminal behavior, but rather suggests potential reasons for it. In an opposite example, an individual who remains in an environment that is healthy, stable, and interacts with people that shower her or him with praise, support, and warmth, such an individual may likely become an active, confident, and successful member of society. These examples don’t suggest simple formulaic paths of development, but simply illustrate the ways in which successive life experiences can alter the mental state of an individual.
Our self-perceptions, or our views regarding ourselves, and our worldview are the key components altered by our life experiences. When people interact with us in a polite and positive manner, we are likely to assume the position that we are likable, and that the individual being kind, is a safe individual to be around. This perspective encourages further interaction in dealing with that kind individual and increases self-worth. If an individual were to be rude with us, we may be likely to infer that the individual is not fond of us. If we are continuously bombarded with such interactions, we may be lead to believe that we are dislikable. This perspective would lead us to develop negative self-worth and close ourselves off from interacting with others.
Self-esteem is critically tied to self-efficacy, and hence to our productivity. If we believe we are worthless, then we are less likely to be successful or productive. Since self-worth and self-esteem are strongly correlated with positive self-efficacy, productivity, and overall success, by smiling or being kind towards others, we engage in a form of charity that contributes to the other individuals’ positive mental state. When we consider how our deeds can be extended like a grain of wheat, a compilation of kind acts by our interactions with anyone who follows this philosophy; it is easy to consider how a positive mental health is maintained, and an unhealthy one prevented. More importantly, when a community consists of dynamic and healthy individuals, confident with healthy state of minds, the community itself becomes emotionally healthy and becomes vibrant and active.
Despite how minute a simple smile may seem, or how awkward it may seem to compliment your brother on his new shirt, these simple acts are monumental as we sometimes forget the great influence they have on the construction of a healthy identity and state of mind. More valuable than money, is one’s health. Contributing a charity towards another’s health can be as simple as smiling.