Is kindness contagious?

New documentary explores the power of being nice, and paying it forward

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Chicago Tribune reporter Jenniffer Weigel discusses kindness. (Posted September 24, 2013)

Can kindness be contagious? According to the new documentary "Good Virus," if you do something nice — or even see someone do something nice — you're more likely to spread those good vibes to others.

"My wife said that all my projects were getting very dark and cynical and I said, 'Great — then I might just do a movie all about being nice,' " said filmmaker David Gaz, director of "Good Virus."

Gaz said he first became curious about the power of kindness after reading an article about James Fowler, associate professor at the University of California, San Diego and co-author of the book, "Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives" (Back Bay Books).

"I'm a huge science nut — not someone who would say, 'What you put out in the world comes back to you,' " Gaz said. "But in Fowler's research, he showed that if I do something nice for you, you will do something nice for four other people, on average. I always like to have concrete examples and proof and the logic behind it. So when I was reading about his study I was kind of blown away."

Shortly after reading that article in 2010, Gaz was at a gas station where a homeless man approached him for money.

"I saw a mini-mart attached to the gas station and I took (the homeless man) inside and told the guy behind the counter to give him anything he wanted. … So we wound up leaving with a couple bags full of stuff. In the parking lot, this guy pulls up in a red pick-up truck and leans out the window and says, 'You, sir, are a good man!' and it felt kind of good. Having just read the James Fowler article, it made me think, 'I bet that man in the truck is going to go do something nice for someone else now.' "

Gaz conducted several interviews for his documentary, including one with Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and co-director of the Greater Good Science Center, an interdisciplinary research center that is based at the university.

"Keltner looks at the roots of evolution and why we are nice to people when it seems we have no advantage to be nice to people," Gaz said. "He found it was sort of rooted in evolution. Human babies take a long time to mature compared to animals. When they are first born they're pretty darn helpless. He says the reason we are nice to people is we have to form these cooperative groups in order to raise our kids and to pass our genes on to future generations. If you notice, we're a social species like bees and ants … Working together is what makes us cooperate as a species."

The movie, which is narrated by Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of the best-selling novel "Pay It Forward," combines research with testimonials from people who talk about the nicest thing someone has ever done for them. Gaz is hoping to gather enough buzz for a wide-scale theater release, but for now, people can see a 20-minute preview online at goodvirus.org.

Since starting on this documentary project three years ago, Gaz said that "every aspect of my life now revolves around kindness." He is in the process of creating an advertising agency that specializes in sustainable branding, promotions and marketing, and travels the country speaking about the benefits of being kind.

"I did this movie for the skeptics because that was me, but now I have a totally different perspective," he said. "I am basically overwhelmed with kindness projects and it is amazing." Plus, he adds, "my wife says I am a nicer person too."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel

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