I attend a weight training class almost every Saturday and there are never enough of the smaller weights available (always tons of the big weights left). Many people in the class take two or three sets of the smaller weights for their bar even when it is clear that others have none. The group instructor will occasionally offer to loan an extra set of her own weights, making it clear that she needs them back at a later point in the class. People also often take two floor mats even when some of us have none.

I find these behaviors astonishing…that some people are oblivious to the needs of people in class standing right beside them and others I suppose realize their predicament, but feel justified that they got there first…first come, first serve, I guess.

Obviously, the management of the gym could and perhaps should order more small weights. They could set a limit on the number of people that can take the class to ensure enough weights for all. Or the instructor could even to say to a very full class that people should take only one set of each size weight until we know that everyone has some. Management at the club should in fact train exercise instructors not just to teach the mechanics of the class enthusiastically, but train them on ways to make all members of the club feel valued, so that they retain members. This could also be an opportunity for individual instructors to show leadership, even if they have not been told by management how to handle this situation (we can each show leadership in our everyday lives…).

Last week, I saw one woman out of about 50 offer up a set of weights and her extra mat to someone next to her. In his classic book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, numero uno on Robert Fulghum’s list is “Share everything.” In fact, behaviors that express kindness, fairness, compassion, empathy have been shown to play a role in our level of overall happiness and to even create happiness in others.

In a recent study, James Fowler, a political science professor from UC San Diego and Nicholas Christakis, a sociology professor from Harvard, found experimentally that the “pay it forward” idea is real: they found experimentally that cooperative behavior is contagious and that it spreads from person to person to person, even indirectly. When people benefit from kindness they “pay it forward” by helping others who were not originally involved, creating an unexpected ripple effect of cooperation that influences dozens more in a social network. Fowler himself said, “Personally it’s very exciting to learn that kindness spreads to people I don’t know or have never met. We have direct experience of giving and seeing people’s immediate reactions, but we don’t typically see how our generosity cascades through the social network to affect the lives of dozens or maybe hundreds of other people.”

I know that pure self-interest is common particularly in large crowds or behind the wheel when we are more anonymous, but it surprises me to see it among people who work out together every week. My wish is that we could truly see the people around us and their needs, when we are at an exercise class at the gym, in line at the grocery store, or even on the highway. It reminds me that I am sure there are ways that I too could be more mindful, pay more full attention to others, take only what I need, and remember to share. By the way, one of the last items on Robert Fulghum’s list is to remember the first word most of us learned in the Dick-and-Jane primers on reading: LOOK.

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