Tena koutou katoa. Nga mihi atawhai nui.
‘It’s easy to misjudge the world around us.’ This statement comes from Loren O’Sullivan, the Director of NPH (NPH stands for Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos which means ‘Our Little Brothers and Sisters’, an organisation for orphan children based in South America – NPH New Zealand). Loren is a Carmel Alumni. Her newsletter talks about how we need to be aware of both how others might perceive our actions and how we interpret the behaviour of others.
For Loren, the NPH children and their difficult life experiences mean that they often struggle to trust others.
She tells of an experience as an English teacher at NPH Honduras where she misinterpreted something that was said to her and took instant offence – when it was her mistake and not that of the child: ‘I expected the children to accept me straight away. I was naive! My broken Spanish made this process a lot slower than I had hoped. There were many funny misunderstandings. One day I was leading an English game when one of the boys called me a ‘trampa’. I was horrified. I assumed that he was calling me a tramp! I marched him down to the Principal, Matias Garcia. Matias quickly explained that ‘trampa’ means ‘cheater’ in English. I was so embarrassed!’
How often do we make negative assumptions about the behaviour and intentions of others?
According to a new study in the Journal of Happiness Studies, 707 participants were asked to read scenarios such as being ignored by a colleague or being stood up at a cafe. Participants then rated the situation on three factors: how much they thought the other person acted intentionally, how much blame they assigned to them, and how angry they were, as a measure of hostile attributions. They also filled out a questionnaire about the extent they considered themselves a happy person.
The researchers categorized participants into three groups: those who thought people were being malicious, those who gave people the benefit of the doubt, or those who thought people were being malicious sometimes but not always.
The researchers found that people who gave others the benefit of the doubt all the time were happier, compared to the participants who always blamed others. People who only sometimes gave others the benefit of the doubt were also happier.
The researchers can’t say for sure whether seeing people as malicious directly lowers our happiness, or whether unhappy people are just more likely to make hostile assumptions in the first place. However, this study does suggest the possibility that giving people the benefit of the doubt is a practice to improve our relationships and our well-being.
Assuming others have good intentions—particularly the people we already know and love—will make the world seem like a friendlier place.