A couple of months ago, while coming home from work, I got stuck behind a man in a long coat plodding up the subway stairs. As he walked, he dragged a cart behind him and it slowly rolled up and over each step.
I thought all the typically peevish thoughts that cross a cynical New Yorker’s mind when someone slows them down. Then, he turned around, looked at me and sighed. “Long week?” I asked.
“I represent abused children in family court,” he told me, “and it seems like everyone is making up for the holidays by being especially abusive.”
I could now see that the man’s cart was full of stacks and stacks of papers from his cases—and suddenly, I felt ashamed of how put out I’d been by his pace. Even if he were just a slow mover with nowhere to be, who was I to wish others ill for taking up space?
I would like to say I can maintain this perspective all of the time, but of course it’s so easy to lose sight of. Between train delays, overcrowding and the threat of being kicked by a break dancer, it’s much easier to have a grumpy commute. In the suburbs, drivers deal with road rage, people who don’t signal and getting stuck behind school buses.
However, my experience with this man forced me to revisit something I’ve long believed: That stewing is a total waste of energy. It really is. And the energy any commuter spends on negativity could be better spent brainstorming ideas, reflecting on the prior day or—gasp—consciously wishing well to fellow commuters.
Read more: How to Break Free of a Culture of Busy-ness
So I came up with an exercise to improve my personal subway morale. The premise was simple: Pick out one thing I liked about each person in my subway car.
At first, it was kind of hard. It was rush hour, and some people were only visible to me as a hand. I quickly hit a rhythm, though. If I saw a disembodied hand, I imagined it doing happy things, like petting a dog. “Hands are miraculous,” I thought to myself. The thoughts just kept flowing: “Nice boots,” “Peaceful face,” “Excellent spatial awareness.”
Continuing the momentum, I let my eye travel to the next car and kept going. It was nice. No, I wasn’t about to win a Nobel Peace Prize—but heck if I didn’t crack a smize. And I definitely caught some people smizing right back.
Daisy Alioto is an editor at Wallpaper* magazine and lives in Brooklyn